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Testing for coronavirus close to home to cut results lag from days to hours

Doctors discussed precautionary measures that can be taken

Doctors discussed precautionary measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd, Chris Ware; Howard Schnapp

Northwell scientists are scrambling in the health system’s Lake Success laboratory to prepare the first widespread testing on Long Island for the coronavirus spreading across the globe.

Conducting tests locally on the virus known as COVID-19 will lead to results within a few hours rather than the days it had taken for samples to be sent to and analyzed in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which until Saturday was the only U.S. institution authorized to do COVID-19 tests, Northwell doctors said.

New York State and New York City received federal approval Saturday to do their own analyses, which already has reduced result times.

Bringing tests even closer to where potential COVID-19 samples are taken would cut the lag time further, said Dr. Deborah Schron, an associate medical director of the lab.

“The sooner we can get results, we’ll have a better idea of the epidemiology of the disease and whether it has spread or not spread, and how to potentially help try to contain it,” she said. 

The hope is to begin manual testing for the virus, which causes respiratory illness, by the end of next week, she said. The lab has the capacity to do 75 to 100 tests a day, she said.

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“We’ve been working around the clock” to validate that the testing is accurate, Schron said.

She said the lab is following the “same protocol and plan" that the New York State Department of Health used in its submission, as approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Northwell Health Labs have machines that conduct automated testing for other viruses and could potentially run and analyze hundreds of COVID-19 tests a day, said Dr. Gregory Berry, Northwell’s director of molecular diagnostics.

Manufacturers of those machines are working to adapt them for COVID-19 testing, he said.

Berry stood near a laboratory technologist loading tubes with respiratory samples — similar to one that would be taken for a COVID-19 test — into a machine that provides results in 90 minutes, rather than the several hours a manual test takes.

The goal is to eventually conduct testing at all 23 Northwell hospitals, he said.

The CDC Wednesday issued new guidance to health care providers to “use their judgment” to determine whether a patient has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and should be tested. Previously, the CDC said testing should be for a more limited number of people, including those who have recently traveled to countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases and have symptoms such as fever.

Mary Ellen Laurain, spokeswoman for the Nassau County health department, said adding lab sites is critical to handle the increase in testing. But, she warned, contact your doctor’s office or hospital before going in for a test, “so the proper precautions can be taken” to avoid infecting others.

The NYU Langone and Mount Sinai health systems — each of which has a hospital on Long Island — are hoping to begin in-house COVID-19 testing, with Mount Sinai aiming to do so by mid-next week, representatives of the systems said. NYU Langone declined to provide a testing timeline.

Once FDA approval is given for the tests, Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital would send potential coronavirus samples to a Mount Sinai Manhattan lab for testing, and NYU Winthrop Hospital likely also would send samples to Manhattan, the health systems said.

Currently, only the state and New York City labs have permission to test for the virus within New York State, state health department spokeswoman Jill Montag said.

If someone is suspected of having the virus, tests are done on three samples, Berry said. To obtain one sample, a swab is inserted into the nose and then to the upper part of the throat called the nasopharynx, he said. Another sample is obtained by swabbing the back of the throat, and the third sample is phlegm that the patient coughs into a wide plastic container.

The Northwell validation process uses viral material unique to COVID-19, and that material is tested over and over again, so “if you expect a negative, you get a negative,” Berry said. “If you expect a positive, you get a positive. You do a certain number of those types of tests and you work through that and some of the other details to prove the test works the way it’s meant to work.”

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