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Northwell Health lab ramping up COVID-19 testing capacity ahead of fall

Lab technologist Fardous Choudhury places COVID-19 antibody tests

Lab technologist Fardous Choudhury places COVID-19 antibody tests inside the QUANTA-Lyzer machine at Northwell Labs on Aug. 11. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Northwell Health on Wednesday said it has added COVID-19 testing machines at its lab in Lake Success to ensure that it could continue to quickly test thousands of patients, boosting capacity on Long Island in case a second wave of the virus takes hold. 

Experts have said the faster test results can be processed, the easier it could be to contain COVID-19 spread. Northwell has said it generally produces a test result in about 48 hours.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Northwell lab has acquired 65 machines.

"For positive test results, there are obvious infection control implications," said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Labs. "For everyone else, we need to process tests as quickly as possible, because they're being screened before undergoing a procedure. This way, if they happen to be positive, they're not infecting others when they go in."

Northwell processes each day about 7,000 of what are called molecular nucleic acid amplification tests to check for people who have the virus, as well as 3,000 antibody tests to identify people who already had it. Northwell was processing about half as many COVID-19 tests in July, the health network said.

The 101,000-square-foot lab opened in 2019 at a cost of nearly $60 million.

Northwell Health has since spent more than $30 million on COVID-19 testing equipment and lab supplies, including a variety of new automated machines.

The lab processes tests for 19 Northwell hospitals, 52 urgent care centers and more than 800 outpatient facilities — along with the needs of strategic partners — across Long Island, New York City and the Hudson Valley.

“Our goal has been to deploy at scale as much testing as possible, as quickly as possible, so we were among the first labs to implement, validate and evaluate performance characteristics for most of these tests,” Breining said. 

He said Northwell has dealt with "various supply-chain issues" to keep COVID-19 testing going at a high level by "maintaining multiple testing platforms."

Northwell recently purchased diagnostic testing analyzers from Hologic, Roche and Abbott, as well as cartridge-type tests from at least five developers.

Other health systems in the metropolitan area have expanded testing capacity through the pandemic.

For example, NYU Langone, which operates a lab, said it is processing about 2,000 tests daily, said Dr. Andrew Rubin, senior vice president for clinical affairs and ambulatory care at the Manhattan-based health system.

He said that's far more than what it had been able to process months ago.

"We are looking at technology that could double our capacity," Rubin said. "New machines come out every day, but accuracy is key and they don't all meet our definition of reliability."

The high level of testing has allowed the state to gauge its progress in containing the virus.

New York’s level of confirmed positives for the virus was 0.8% Tuesday, continuing a streak that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has attributed to New Yorkers largely adhering to COVID-19 mitigation regulations. The number of new confirmed cases has remained under 100 per day in each of the Long Island counties.

The state continues to operate testing centers at Jones Beach and Stony Brook.

Nassau and Suffolk County officials said they continue to push testing expansion plans despite the low infectivity rate.

In the past week, more testing was done than at any point since the pandemic began, said Vicki DiStefano, a spokeswoman for the Nassau County executive's office. 

She added that "with the school year starting, testing will continue to be readily available to all who need it" at Nassau's FQHC sites.

"All urgent care centers are equipped to do COVID-19 testing and Northwell Health is working in the Town of Hempstead to expand testing," DiStefano said. "There is a testing site convenient to every ZIP code in Nassau County."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone late last week nearly 100 locations are offering COVID-19 diagnostic testing, antibody testing, and rapid testing. Bellone said the county will launch a public service awareness campaign to update residents on testing locations, including free sites.

Suffolk County’s town supervisors recently asked the county to reopen free COVID-19 testing sites ahead of a potential second wave of infections this fall.