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ND Health Department downsizing COVID operations

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 4:33 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - For a year and a half, the state health lab was flooded with COVID needs. So much so, they needed to ship tests out of state for processing.

The state spent millions of dollars bringing in new equipment and employees to make testing a 24/7 operation. Recently, the state has been releasing no-longer-needed, part-time staff and equipment..

In December 2020, there were 916 temporary employees at the Department of Health assigned specifically to fight COVID. Today, it’s 601.

While not all of the team members were in the lab or assigned to a specific department, the layoffs are a sign of new times at the state lab.

There was a time when COVID testers didn’t have time to breathe.

Not so today.

“I worry about getting tested even though I’ve been vaccinated, because I think people should do it still,” said Bismarck resident Jodi Schilling.

Testing has dropped dramatically. In December, the state was conducting more than 10,000 tests a day. Now, it’s doing more than 1,000.

To handle the load, the lab leased testing machines and other equipment. When the leases ran out earlier this year, they were not renewed.

“There was a lot of demand for instant information and instant results. I dropped my specimen off to you 15 minutes ago, why isn’t it done yet, you know? That pressure on us has lifted quite a bit, because we’re in that rhythmic testing pattern now,” said Chief Laboratory Officer Dr. Christie Massen.

Not only are they losing the machines, but they’re also losing the people doing the tests.

When winter turned to spring, the DOH started cutting back on staffing. Without traffic for testing, the overnight shift was cut.

During COVID, the state lab developed a network with other labs for the next time there’s an immediate need for testing other diseases.

So while the country was social distancing, the lab was improving its collaboration efforts.

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