- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico on Monday started offering limited saliva testing as health officials look to boost the state’s capacity for COVID-19 testing while spread of the virus remained unchecked and hospital administrators renewed their pleas for people to stay home for the holidays and refrain from family gatherings.

The Health Department rolled out the FDA approved testing method at one of Albuquerque’s largest testing sites Monday. The agency expects about 2,000 of the tests to be done per day at the site once the program is underway and it could be expanded to several other locations in the coming weeks based on the level of positivity and demand.

The method - recommended for asymptomatic individuals - involves swabbing the mouth to collect a saliva sample. The tests will be self-collected, with trained personnel present to ensure samples are properly collected.

Acting Health Secretary Billy Jimenez said the state is looking for better and more innovative ways to serve New Mexicans amid the pandemic.

“We are excited to provide faster, more convenient methods of COVID-19 testing to the public,” he said. “The saliva test is less invasive to clients, reduces exposure to healthcare workers, alleviates some of the strain on our labs and will hopefully reduce the burden of PPE usage in our state.”

The state for the past week has been averaging close to 12,000 tests per day but officials have said that would need to double in order to get a better handle on limiting spread. New testing sites have opened up, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned during a recent briefing that there aren’t enough medical professionals to administer tests as more New Mexicans request them.

State agencies have put out the call for volunteers to help with duties such as opening test kits, running test results to medical personnel and managing traffic at testing sites. In Albuquerque, the fire department has regularly been seeking volunteers from its ranks to work at test sites.

State officials on Monday also acknowledged the lag in the turn-around time for results. Whether positive or negative, they’re planning to notify people via text and email to close the gap.

In the past, only those who tested negative and opted into receiving test results via text and or email were notified in this manner. Those who tested positive received a phone call.

Jimenez said people who have been exposed need to isolate themselves until they get their results.

“The virus is so widespread in our state right now that everyone should assume they - and everyone they come into contact with - has been infected,” he said.

The state on Monday reported an additional 2,259 confirmed cases, bringing the total to nearly 84,150 since the pandemic began. The death toll has reached 1,400.

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, hospital leaders briefed reporters Monday. They said one of the main ways the virus is spreading is through family gatherings.

“I’ve seen whole families impacted by this virus - husbands and wives in the ICU together, brothers and sisters, grandparents, parents, children,” said Dr. Vesta Sandoval, the chief medical officer at Lovelace Health System. “Our healthcare providers are doing everything they can … but if the virus continues to spread as it is, we are not going to be able to take care of the numbers that we are expecting.”

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