Last week at MedpLus in Tupelo, a medical worker makes his way to a vehicle at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. The specimens collected are this site are sent off for testing.

TUPELO • State officials and medical experts are attempting to quickly ramp up the capacity to test for cases of COVID-19, even as the case count continues to climb, including additional deaths reported in Lee and Tippah counties.

The State Health Department announced Saturday that testing has identified 84 new presumptive COVID-19 cases in the state, including Lee County’s first reported death and Tippah County’s second death. This follows the death of a Tippah County resident reported on Friday, the first publicly known COVID-19 death in Northeast Mississippi.

A county of only about 22,000, Tippah County now has the most number of reported COVID-19 cases in all of Northeast Mississippi, at 18. Lee County follows, with 17 reported cases.

Across the state, known cases of the new coronavirus identified by state-level testing stand at 663.

That number could be increasing very rapidly following an announcement by the Health Department last week of plans to shift toward a surveillance mode of testing, including more extensive contact tracing and proactive case identification.

In a press briefing last week, Gov. Tate Reeves said the state has been “partially playing defense” and will soon “shift from playing defense to playing offense.”

Mississippi’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs explained the coming strategic modification and said techniques implemented by South Korea and Singapore are models to partially emulate.

“We expect to see more and more cases,” Dobbs said. “This is time to be aggressive. I’m glad we finally have the resources and the manpower plan to make something happen.”

Testing priorities at for suspected COVID-19 patients at the state health laboratory have prioritized hospitalized and other ill patients with clear, objective symptoms, including fever and cough.

Even so, state health officials have acknowledged a lag in testing time.

Now, however, Dobbs believes that Mississippi can effectively begin to identify COVID-19 patients faster.

“To identify cases one of the things we really have to do is ramp up testing and that’s one of the most important things we can bring to this fight,” Dobbs said.

Alongside expanded testing, Dobbs said the Health Department will begin more expansive contact investigations. Once a sick person has been identified, contact tracing been determining all the people the sick person has come into contact with and potentially infected.

The ultimately goal of this strategy is to identify people with COVID-19 as quickly as possible and quarantine them before they can spread the disease to others.

Contact tracing and increased testing is labor intensive, but Dobbs said the state will repurpose some of its own staff while drawing on the resources of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the National Guard.

“With this collaborative, all-government approach, we think we can make an absolutely huge difference,” Dobbs said.

Testing capacity in the state should also get a boost from UMMC, which announced last week a test developed there to detect the new coronavirus is ready fo ruse.

UMMC Vice Chancellor LouAnn Woodward said last week that beginning Friday, the research medical center would be able to move “full steam ahead” with its own testing.

Richard Summers, the UMMC associate vice chancellor for research, said “a limited number of tests” have been “a barrier to tracking the disease.”

He said research would continue into additional testing options, including a point-of-care test.

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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