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As demand increases, Iowa prisoners tasked with preparing COVID test kits

The state is partnering with Iowa Prison Industries to prepare the test kits for shipment across Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — As more Iowans are ordering at-home coronavirus test kits from the state, public health leaders are now looking for more ways to increase the stockpile. One of those avenues is using Iowa inmates to prepare the test kits.

According to Sarah Ekstrand with the Iowa Department of Public Health, the State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) has partnered with Iowa Prison Industries to increase the state's collection of at-home test kits.

TestIowa will soon have up to 25,000 kits produced a week thanks to the new partnership, Ekstrand added. There is potential to scale up production to 100,000 test kits a week.

According to IDPH, the inmates packaging the test kits are women involved in the IPI program at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

The women are paid and they can volunteer to be involved in the program.

The uptick in production will significantly reduce the wait time for Iowans who want a kit.

With the start of school on the horizon, the state has found itself in a difficult position: school districts want the test kits from the state, but there aren't many to go around. 

Leaders with West Des Moines Community Schools told Local 5 they plan to use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to purchase testing kits, but is still researching its options ahead of the school year.

Before its special board meeting last week, district leaders "had just learned that we are unable to receive any Test Iowa kits because they ran out due to the high volume request..." said Laine Mendenhall-Buck, a spokeswoman for the district.

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Ekstrand confirmed the state is experiencing a high number of Iowans asking for the at-home test kits. She said the state was filling West Des Moines Schools' request.

The state's at-home test kit program went live on July 16 after drive-thru TestIowa clinics were phased out this summer.

Since July 16, Iowans have ordered 38,475 test kits. Only 4,914 kits have been activated, according to IDPH. 

IDPH said numbers indicate "Iowans are ordering kits to have on hand, rather than for immediate use."

Ekstrand said the state has changed the language on testiowa.com to inform Iowans of a possible longer wait time.Test kits are now expected to be delivered within a week of placing the order.

Any school or district can conduct COVID-19 testing. It is unclear how many have decided to offer that for students or staff.

Testing supplies are considered an allowable use of ESSER funds. School leaders can submit those costs to the Iowa Department of Education for reimbursement. 

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