#CrushTheCurve founder Tommy Ahlquist claims Idaho has already solved its testing problem

For those who've been listening to the drumbeat of depressing coronavirus news for two months straight, the slightest inkling of good news can engender a lot of skepticism.

But in an interview on Wednesday evening, Idaho's Tommy Ahlquist — a former emergency room doctor, a developer, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, and the recent co-founder of Crush the Curve Idaho — presented the Inlander with not just one but two pieces of good news.

First, he claims that Idaho now has enough tests.

Second, he says he thinks Idaho is about ready to slowly open up its economy again.

"We have adequate testing in Idaho," Ahlquist says. "Hospitals are empty. People's livelihoods are going down the drain as we're sitting here."

Ahlquist's claims are noteworthy, because he hasn't been one of those railing against Idaho's stay-at-home order or calling the virus a hoax.

After all, this is not a new virus — not anymore. Ahlquist argues that Idaho can learn from other countries that have done it right.

"Early on, what we knew worked was social distancing," Ahlquist says. "The next thing, I've been yelling about, screaming about, is testing. You look at South Korea, the places where they're able to manage this? They have testing."

But early on, as an Idaho Statesman article on Thursday detailed, Idaho's testing performance was initially awful — people who clearly had reason to believe they'd been infected were often not allowed to get tested.

"I think most business leaders have been sitting back wondering what the heck are we doing and how do we help?" Ahlquist says.

So on the night of April 2, inspired by an effort in Utah, Ahlquist launched Crush the Curve — an effort by Idaho businesses to ramp up coronavirus testing.

"We've rallied 28 CEOs," Ahlquist says. "We're going as hard we can to figure this out."

They started shelling out money to reserve spaces at commercial labs throughout the country for test processing. They called up suppliers and began ordering hundreds of thousands of testing kits. It's been an exhausting marathon. He says he hasn't even paid attention to his kid for the past two weeks. 

“This is like building the airplane when we’re flying it," he says.

But recently, Crush the Curve has shifted from just testing for COVID patients to also testing people for antibodies, giving them an idea for the prevalence of potential immunity to the coronavirus in the larger population. 

"We're going to test another 18,000 people for antibodies in the next week," Ahlquist says.

"We've set up testing centers all around the state," Ahlquist says. "One of the guys at our development company is driving collection kits around the state, so that people can test sick people. We're really excited. It's been one of those things that gives people hope, and it's been wonderful to be part of."

It's a 100 percent private effort, Ahlquist says, though he says he keeps the state government in the loop to their efforts.

"We're not even close to our daily capacity on COVID-19 tests in Idaho," Ahlquist says. "Just not even close. We can test thousands of people a day in Idaho. Those supply chains are completely secured with money. So it's not like I'm just saying that: We are ready to go."

In a press conference on Thursday, however, Idaho Gov. Brad Little celebrated an enormous increase in testing capacity, but wasn't quite ready to declare victory on the testing issue.

“We’ve got lots of new testing venues," Little said. "Hospitals are ramping up. Some pharmacies are doing it. All the work that #CrushTheCurve is doing. Our testing is going up."

But he said that Idaho wasn't quite ready to start focusing on testing large numbers of people without symptoms.

“As we have [more] capacity, the percent of the population we want to test is going to get bigger, but we still have to protect those people who are at the most risk," Little says.

But Ahlquist is undeterred by Little's caution.

"The state can run 200 [tests] a day," Ahlquist says. "We can run 4,000 a day. We’re running significantly less than that. There’s not a lot of people coming in for testing."

In the populous Ada County, the tests are being run by Saltzer Health, a company co-owned by Ahlquist. The only requirement to get a test from Crush the Curve is to show up.

"You can pull up to any of our facilities and say we’re here for a test and get a test done," Ahlquist says. Each test costs $105, but Ahlquist says that's charged to insurance. Most tests, he says, are turned around within only one or two days.   

In other cities throughout Idaho, Ahlquist says that Crush the Curve has been partnering with existing hospitals and health-care systems, sending hundreds of testing kits to locations like 
Kootenai Health in Coeur d'Alene and Northwest Specialty Hospital in Post Falls. They're setting up tent-style testing locations in Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

Still, in a press release Friday from Little's office announcing the formation of Testing Task Force, task force co-chair
Jim Souza indicated there was still work to do.

“We know that testing capabilities have been limited in too many areas and we are glad for the increasing capacity that is coming online in multiple areas,” Souza said in a press release.

But asked whether there's any bottleneck in Idaho testing today, Ahlquist is unequivocal.

"None. Zero. Absolutely none," he says. "We’ve got thousands of collection kits. Thousands, we’re ready to share them with everyone that needs them. We have thousands of antibody tests to be run at the University of Washington every day." 

That doesn't necessarily mean you can walk into the hospital in an extremely rural community like Grangeville and automatically get a test today. But as time goes on, Ahlquist says, Crush the Curve will be able to provide testing kits to increasingly rural communities.

Right now, the results from the tests, he says, are telling him two things: That there's not much immunity in Idaho right now — but there's also not much disease.  They haven't crushed the curve, Ahlquist says, but they may have temporarily flattened it.

On Thursday, Little laid out his step-by-step plan for loosening the state's coronavirus restrictions, tied to specific epidemiological benchmarks.

There will be future outbreaks, Ahlquist predicts. But with enough testing, he hopes, they'll be able to rapidly identify the sources of that outbreak and then contact the people they have may have infected and then quarantine them.
"I was a social distancing advocate, and always have been, and I still am. But I also am a business advocate," Ahlquist says. "The economy is crumbling. People are losing their livelihoods. They're getting to the point where they will not be able to come back with small business owners."

And so lately, Ahlquist hasn't just been criticizing those who call the coronavirus a hoax — he's been criticizing those who he feels are too cautious when it comes to reopening Idaho's economy.
(Wilson Criscione contributed to this report)

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...