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Texas labs can now test for coronavirus, but capacity remains limited

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Canan Emcan, 31, chief nurse of the infection and virologist ward of the university clinic of Essen closes a sample of a smear test to be used in case of coronavirus patients during a media event in Essen, Germany on March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Six Texas public health labs are now capable of testing for the new coronavirus, state officials announced Thursday, as the number of infected Americans continues to climb and the nation’s testing capacity struggles to keep up.

Another four labs are expected to begin testing nose and mouth swabs from patients to determine if they have the virus, Gov. Greg Abbott said, but capacity remains limited.

The state lab in Austin can only test samples from up to 26 patients per day, while labs in Houston and El Paso can test up to 15 samples daily, officials said. Labs in Dallas, Lubbock and Fort Worth are also ready to begin testing.

“This new ability to provide testing in the state will shorten the time to get test results and will help public health take the appropriate steps,” Abbott said.

Federal health officials this week broadened the criteria for who may be tested for the virus as more public labs gain the ability to test for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Anyone who wants a test may get one so long as a doctor agrees, under guidance published Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal officials urged doctors to “use their judgment” when deciding if a patient merits testing and should consider symptoms as well as travel history and the possibility of close contact with people who tested positive for the coronavirus disease. Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing, similar to seasonal flu. Doctors should rule out other causes of respiratory illness before ordering a coronavirus test, according to the guidance.

“Clinicians should use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and whether the patient should be tested,” federal health officials wrote this week.

Public health labs can test for the presence of , according to Rodney Rohde, a public health expert at Texas State University.