California wants innovative ways to double COVID-19 testing, transport

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California this week returned to its new, lightweight procurement process to seek help in improving how the state collects and transports biological samples to be tested for COVID-19.

Using a process created last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, called Request for Innovative Ideas, or RFI2, the state’s health, general services and technology departments on Monday asked companies and community organizations throughout the state to develop new ways to improve the efficacy and speed with which samples can be processed.

The call for solutions follows the announcement of a new partnership last month between the state and diagnostic testing firm PerkinElmer intended to double California’s coronavirus testing capacity to 150,000 daily tests, with a 24-48 hour turnaround time, by March 1. California’s RFI2 has so far been used to purchase two hi-tech firefighting technologies, which the state is currently piloting, and officials said they now intend to use the streamlined process to acquire creative solutions to increase testing capacity by early November — a tight turnaround for a state government that using traditional procurement vehicles often spends years, even decades, completing projects.

“We often say that this is a whole-of-government response, but the goal here is that this is a whole-of-California response,” said Marko Mijic, acting director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. “We’re looking to this procurement mechanism to bring in other non-traditional players to help us think about what are the modalities that we can leverage in order for us to really think about this differently in order to disrupt the space more.”

In particular, Mijic told StateScoop, the state believes that churches and schools are underused in the COVID-19 response, and the RFI2 procurement process makes it easier for such organizations to participate.

In addition to improving the state’s testing capacity generally, Mijic said his office also wants this project to ameliorate the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on Latino and Black communities, whose members have been shown nationally to be three times likelier than their white neighbors to become infected and twice as likely to die after infection. 

“I think we will likely have to lean heavily on a tech solution, because obviously it’s going to have to reach people as far and wide as possible,” Mijic said. “I think that it has to be more than just tech, because we know that some hard-to-reach areas there might be issues with regard to access to technology or access to Wi-Fi or internet capabilities.”

In addition to being faster and more welcoming to smaller or non-competitive organizations, California’s RFI2 process is also designed to emphasize the problem at hand rather than the solution, a distinction also catching on in other states, including Connecticut and Maryland, that leads to a more open-ended search for solutions. Mijic said he didn’t want to be too specific about the kinds of solutions the state is looking for, because that would defeat the purpose of a problem-based procurement process, but that he expects some combination of hi- and lo-tech solutions will be adopted.

“That might not be a web-based interface,” he said. “That might be communication via SMS or phone in order for us to be able to make sure that we get both to the accessibility component as well the equity component. Our hope is that maybe unusual partnerships could come out of this because in the end i think we’re going to have to all figure out how we disrupt this more broadly in order for us to get back to normal.”

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California, COVID-19 testing, Procurement, RFI2
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