Houghton County nears 1K testing mark

Houghton County is closing in on 1,000 COVID-19 tests.

As of Monday, 987 people had been referred for testing in Houghton County, more than half of the 1,784 in the five-county area. Of those tested in Houghton County, six were positive. 

Michigan Technological University set up a lab on-campus in April to process COVID-19 samples sent in from local providers. Last week, the lab processed about 35 samples a day, said Caryn Heldt, one of the technical leads for the lab. As of now, it has the capacity to perform twice as many tests.

“Really, the biggest problem we have with capacity is making sure we have enough people to work in the lab,” Heldt said. “We have enough capacity from a reagent point of view, but we still have to make sure we have enough trained staff.”

The staff is constantly growing, Heldt said. It may also face a bigger workload later this summer and fall, as Michigan Tech continues reopening campus. By later this summer, the university hopes to expand testing to include some employees who do not have symptoms. When students return, the university is considering testing some students who are returning from high-risk areas. 

The goal is to build the lab’s capacity to 100 to 200 samples per day, Heldt said. 

“A lot of my time right now is figuring out how to continue to ramp up the lab,” she said. “It’s a constant effort that we’re working on now.”

in addition to in-house testing at UP Health System – Portage and Aspirus, there have also been drive-through sites locally. The Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center (UGL) and the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department (WUPHD) launched a drive-through center in April located at the Gates Tennis Center at Michigan Tech. 

Spurred by a number of new positive tests in Houghton County, more people have been coming in this week, said Zachariah DeYoung, a doctor at UGL who has been running the site. There have been about 20 to 25 tests performed per day, and 30 on Monday. Those numbers had dropped to 10 or 12 per day before the recent positives. 

They could go as high as 45 with the staff on hand, and have the ability to bring in more if needed, DeYoung said. 

“We could get up to 60 or 70 if we really had to,” he said. 

Their supply needs are being met through a mix of state, federal and private vendors, DeYoung said. 

“Between the three supply streams, we’re looking really good as far as swabs, PPE, test kits,” he said. 

The 1,000-test mark is a “big round number,” but not what he is looking at, DeYoung said. 

“What’s going to end up being important for us is when the students return, will we have the ability to test enough people in a short amount of time to have some reliable amount of information on what we’re looking at with community prevalence, with those people coming from such geographically diverse areas,” he said. 

“Pretty big numbers” have come up in discussions, some of which might be beyond the testing center’s ability to support, DeYoung said. A specific target number for the testing has not been finalized, DeYoung said. 

An executive order last week allowed people to get tested for COVID-19 without getting an order in advance from their medical provider. Anyone who wants to be tested can call the state’s coronavirus hotline at 1-888-535-6136 or visit www.michigan.gov/coronavirustest to find an appropriate testing site.

More people now qualify for testing. Under the governor’s order, it includes people with any symptoms — including coughing or shortness of breath, people exposed to people who have COVID-19 or show symptoms, people who have worked outside their home for at least 10 days, and people who live in congregate care facilities such as nursing homes or jails. 

They will also pay no out-of-pocket cost, the order states. 

UGL also plans to begin offering more testing in smaller towns in the western and central U.P. a couple of times a week. They will be coordinating a drive-through test site with WUPHD from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at Ontonagon High School. 

Anyone wishing to be screened and preregistered for a COVID-19 test at a UGL site should call toll free number 844-947-4854 in advance to schedule a drive-through appointment.

Heldt said she is happy to see testing numbers continue to rise in the area. The testing numbers on campus make her proud of both her team and the entire campus. 

“Every time we ran into an issue, it was amazing that somebody on campus was able to help us,” she said. “It was really great to see everybody come together and create something important. it makes me very proud to be a Husky.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)