SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota is easing its guidelines for who should get tested for the coronavirus, amid what has turned into one of the slowest weeks of testing since shortly after the pandemic struck the state in early March.

The state's new guidelines broaden who should be considered at high-priority for testing at the state public health lab, adds to the number of symptoms medical providers should look for when choosing who to test, and requires fewer evident symptoms before testing.

The state Department of Health issued the new guidelines for South Dakota health care providers late Wednesday, April 29, following updated direction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The guidelines play a key role in determining who gets tested for COVID-19. Testing results inform state and local leaders as they make closely watched decisions about pandemic restrictions.

Under the new guidelines, medical providers should consider testing people suspected of having COVID-19 if they have either:

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  • A cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Two of the following symptoms: fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.

"That is helpful clarification, I think, to medical providers out there who have patients who are presenting to them with COVID-like symptoms, and will help aid that discussion about whether an individual should be tested for COVID-19," said Dr. Joshua Clayton, state epidemiologist.

The moves comes as state officials look to dramatically expand daily testing for the virus through an statewide integrated testing plan, as part of Gov. Kristi Noem's "Back to Normal" plan for the state, released Tuesday. The plan would require that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms can get tested, and that test is available at no charge to the individual.

But the testing plan is still squarely centered on health care providers making the call on who should be tested, based on the latest state and federal recommendations. At this point, federal and state officials are only recommending those with symptoms get tested.

"We believe very strongly that providers in South Dakota play a vital role in determining whether an individual needs to be tested for COVID-19," said Dr. Tim Southern, director of the state Public Health Lab.

Daily testing far below capacity

Noem said the state has the capacity to run 3,000 tests a day and will seek to grow daily testing to 5,000 a day. However, a Forum New Service analysis shows the state's daily testing total has been far below that total.

There have been an average of 443 tests processed a day from South Dakotans since the state began posting comprehensive COVID-19 testing results from state, clinical and private labs on March 25. And while testing surged last week, peaking at 772 tests on April 25, testing this week has lagged, with daily totals from Sunday to Thursday averaging only 287 tests.

State officials have said the recent, lower daily testing totals were due to health care providers choosing to test fewer people. A Minnesota Public Radio analysis of regional testing data shows South Dakota is comfortably in second place for per capita testing, lagging behind only North Dakota and well above Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Health officials caution that not everyone needs a test because most people who catch COVID-19 will only have a mild case of the disease and can recover at home without medical care.

The state public health lab, which only processes tests from high-priority cases from outside the state's major health systems, has also expanded who it will test.

Previously the state lab only tested hospitalized patients, and those with symptoms who are in an institutional setting, such as long-term care facilities, and health care workers, first responders and active military.

Newly considered high-priority cases: those with symptoms who are uninsured or underinsured, low-income individuals who can't pay for testing and those who are homeless.

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