A group of state lawmakers urged Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday to terminate agreements with three Utah companies the state has contracted with as part of its initiative to ramp up coronavirus testing.
In a letter to Ricketts, Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, Megan Hunt and Rick Kolowski, all of Omaha, and Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said "several issues of concern" have emerged after the Test Nebraska public-private partnership was announced April 21.
The $27 million contract, awarded jointly to Nomi Health, Domo and Qualtrics through a no-bid process as part of the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, would have been better invested in Nebraska's existing public health infrastructure, the senators said.
The letter also says the companies, part of Silicon Slopes in Utah, have failed to meet the number of daily tests performed and the time frame for returning test results as stipulated in the contracts.
"Since the rollout of testing in April, Nomi Health has failed to deliver the contractually required number of daily tests and failed to meet the contractually required 48-hour turnaround time for test results," the senators wrote.
The lawmakers also criticized Nomi Health's inexperience in public health and lack of understanding of the state's existing health care system and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Nebraskans do not have the luxury to wait for Nomi leadership to learn on the job," they wrote.
At his daily news briefing Monday, Ricketts defended the contracts and the Test Nebraska initiative, calling the suggestion to terminate the agreements with the trio of Utah companies by the May 19 deadline for doing so "ludicrous."
"I think the senators just don't want to have testing here in the state," Ricketts said. "It's a manufactured complaint."
In their letter, the senators wrote "access to widespread and reliable testing is critical to understanding rates of infection. Without this information it is impossible to deliver an effective public health response."
Ricketts said Test Nebraska was built with capacity in mind, but acknowledged it could take some time to get to the 3,000 daily tests he announced last month.
As of Monday, 145,000 Nebraskans have enrolled in the program, Ricketts said, and mobile testing sites have been set up in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island — returning results to 2,358 people so far, including 80 that were positive.
The 3% positive rate is well below the 18% average positive rate for all other tests conducted in Nebraska since testing began in early March.
Ricketts attributed the discrepancy to Test Nebraska being geared toward a different population than early coronavirus tests, which were prioritized for health care workers, first responders, and those showing symptoms in the early weeks of the pandemic when test materials were harder to come by.
Test Nebraska allows those not showing symptoms to get tested, Ricketts said, and expanded its pool to allow anyone age 65 or older to participate.
"If you're testing non-symptomatic people, the chance of testing positive is lower," he said, adding the state's other tests were done in hot spots such as Douglas, Hall and Dakota counties, where localized outbreaks meant more people were likely to test positive.
Test Utah, the model for the Test Nebraska program that has been operating since April 1, separated results for symptomatic patients from those without symptoms, the Salt Lake Tribune reported last month, but positive rates for both groups were below those reported at other test sites.
In Nebraska, the test kits provided by Nomi Health "must be capable of producing accurate results a majority of the time when properly conducted or administered," according to the contract. No specific accuracy rate is detailed.
Doug Carlson, deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services and the state's chief negotiator on the Test Nebraska contracts, wrote April 19 in an email obtained by the Journal Star he was "very comfortable" with the tests provided by manufacturer Co-Diagnostics.
"So I'm not certain how to ensure quality control or accuracy, as these kits are approved by the CDC and we will be conducting the tests ourselves," Carlson wrote.
Ricketts on Monday said the tests have been validated at the Test Nebraska lab set up at CHI St. Elizabeth in Lincoln and have a 95% accuracy rate.
He also said the time for test results to be returned was lengthened from 48 hours to 72 hours, which is in line with other testing done in the state.
The senators' letter also reiterates concerns over the privacy of personal information collected in the Test Nebraska system, which requires enrollees to fill out a questionnaire.
Cavanaugh and Hunt said in late April the terms of the contract weren't clear on what would happen to the information provided by Nebraskans seeking a coronavirus test after a service agreement on Domo's website said the company had license to use aggregate, unidentifiable data to improve its products and services.
Responding to those concerns, Ricketts has said repeatedly Nebraskans' data would not be sold individually or in the aggregate, and members of his staff have sought to assuage concerns, saying the privacy of Nebraskans was negotiated early on in the process.
Emails between the state and Domo show the state continuing to push the issue days after the program started April 24, however.
"I want you (to) add in the language: Your personal data will never be sold! Put it in bold. Let me know when that is done," Carlson wrote to Matt Chandler, Domo's director of product management. "We want to be very clear on this fact for our citizens."
Ricketts indicated Monday that Test Nebraska and the state's relationships with the Utah companies — who are contracted to provide 540,000 tests, even if that many tests aren't administered — will continue well into the future as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue.
See the top stories on coronavirus in Lincoln and Nebraska since the pandemic first affected the area in March.
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