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Long Islanders left confused about state's COVID-19 testing process

Dr. Robert Levy, who runs AFC Urgent Care in Farmingdale, anticipates that the weeklong wait to get coronavirus results will shorten, with "point of care" tests that is expected to allow for a faster turnaround. Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

Thousands of Long Islanders have been tested for COVID-19 at drive-through sites and in private medical offices, but some complain of long waits for results and confusion on how to find out if they tested positive.

Dawn Best of Wantagh and her husband got tested at the state-run Jones Beach State Park drive-through site March 17 and were told someone would phone them with results. But they’re still waiting.

George Drapan, a 67-year-old three-time cancer survivor from Levittown, also has been waiting since March 17, the first day for the drive-through.

“I have three children, a wife,” he said. “I’m nervous. I’m staying isolated. I’m staying in a separate room,” using a separate bathroom and staying at least 6 feet from them.

State Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag said in an email that those who go through the state-run drive-through sites — the other location on Long Island is at Stony Brook University — can receive results by phone, fax or via the website for New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories, which is testing the respiratory samples.

But a Massapequa registered nurse who got tested said that no one with the state or at Jones Beach told her about the BioReference site, and she found out on Facebook.

More than 122,000 people have been tested statewide as of Thursday, which, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, represents about 25% of testing nationwide.

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“We have dedicated staff working around the clock to expedite testing and delivery of results,” Montag said.

Specimens from the sickest and most vulnerable people are tested first; others could wait two weeks or more for results, a state official said.

About 3,500 people have been tested at Stony Brook since the drive-through opened there March 18, Dr. Josh Miller, medical director of diabetes care at Stony Brook Medicine, said in a Stony Brook Facebook Live COVID-19 event Wednesday. Miller oversees the site. There were more than 3,600 tests done at the Jones Beach drive-through Tuesday, Montag said.

Private doctor offices, urgent-care centers and labs said test results can take from one to several days for turnaround.

At New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, test results for critically ill people in its hospitals can come back within three hours, and the health system is aiming to install testing machines in all its hospitals in the coming days, said Richard Tesoriero, vice president for business and operational performance at Northwell Health Labs.

Northwell, which primarily runs tests for its own hospitals, nursing homes, urgent-care centers and doctors, performs about 1,700 tests a day with three types of testing machines and has done 10,500 since it began with the slower manual testing on March 8, Tesoriero said.

Those with coronavirus symptoms should “self-quarantine” until they get results back, said Stefan Juretschko, senior director of infectious disease diagnostics at Northwell Health Labs.

At the state-run drive-through sites — there are also locations in the Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester County and Rockland County — health care workers, first responders, those who were in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person, and others considered “highest risk” are given priority, Montag said. Elderly people, those with previous respiratory illnesses and those with compromised immune systems are among others who will be tested first, a state official said. Those people are also who doctors and clinics should prioritize, the official said.

Those who call for an appointment are asked questions about what symptoms they have to determine if they are eligible for testing and how highly they should be prioritized, a state official said. The primary symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath, which can appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drapan, who said he was tested at Jones Beach at the recommendation of his doctor after he was concerned about a dry cough, had a good initial experience.

“It was very well-organized,” he said. “I was very impressed with the way they were running it.”

But after more than a week of waiting for test results, Drapan fears the state has bungled the process.

“They told me I’d receive a response from them in two to three business days,” he said. “I’ve been trying to find out what number I could call to get results.”

Drapan said that someone with the governor’s office told him to call the Nassau County Health Department for results, but a health department employee said the county has nothing to do with testing.

Best, who became concerned by a sore throat, runny nose and heaviness in her chest after attending a wake and funeral with about 70 others earlier this month, said when she was tested she asked how she would receive results and “they said 'We’ll call you, we’ll call you.' ”

After five days without a phone call, she found the number for the Nassau County coronavirus hotline on the web. The first time she called, she was told “people that are positive are getting called three to five days after they get results” and that people who tested negative were not getting called.

The next day, she talked to someone else at the hotline, who told her to obtain results from BioReference. She said that the company’s website wouldn’t accept the personal information she entered and she repeatedly got disconnected from the company’s phone line.

A BioReference spokeswoman said in an email that drive-through results are available on its website or through the state health department.

Spokeswomen with the Nassau and Suffolk County health departments said the counties do not provide drive-through test results. Suffolk health department spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said “we follow up with positive cases to discuss quarantine.”

There are several private drive-through options on Long Island. Enzo Clinical Labs began drive-through testing at its Farmingdale headquarters Monday, with appointments via physicians that use the lab.

Lake Success-based ProHEALTH Care has been testing at sites in Jericho and Little Neck, Queens, since March 18 and on Wednesday announced it has opened a Lake Success drive-through. Those sites are only open to ProHEALTH primary care patients and are also by appointment. About 700 people had been tested at the drive-throughs as of Monday, a company spokeswoman said.

ProHEALTH also does testing at its 30 urgent-care centers. But it limits COVID-19 testing to “only those with fever and respiratory symptoms in whom a test result would change how our doctors treat the patient,” Dr. Lawrence Shulman, chief medical officer for the company, said in an email.

Non-drive-through testing and treatment of COVID-19 patients is only at the urgent-care centers, and not in physician offices, to limit exposure to employees and other patients, he said. The temperature is taken of all people entering the urgent-care centers, and those with a fever are asked to wait in their cars until called, he said.

In the six Nassau clinics of the nonprofit Long Island FQHC Inc., which serves many low-income people, those with possible COVID-19 symptoms are first tested for the flu and strep throat, to rule those out, before they’re tested for coronavirus, president and CEO David Nemiroff said.

Dr. Robert Levy, owner and practitioner of AFC Urgent Care Farmingdale, which has three locations on Long Island, said his patients also are first tested for the flu.

The center’s lab vendor, Quest Diagnostics, only supplies the three centers with a total of 30 coronavirus test kits a day, which is why “we can’t test asymptomatic patients, nor those with mild symptoms.” If he runs out of supplies, he writes a prescription for a mobile testing site.

“That’s something I’ve never had to do in my career … ,” he said. “So we’re basing decisions on resource limitations that in the past have simply never existed in our health system. Overall, I’d say that’s concerning.”

Testing is free for most people, under a new federal law that requires most private health insurance plans to offer testing for the virus — and related visits associated with the diagnosis of COVID-19 — although some types of private coverage plans sold to individuals are not covering that, according to an analysis of the law by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on health policy.

The law also allocates $1 billion for insurers to reimburse providers for the cost to test and diagnose people without insurance and those with insurance not covered by the measure. In addition, some states — including New York — provide free testing to those on Medicaid.

With David Reich-Hale

TESTING PROCESS

The state advises people with a health care provider to first contact that person about testing.

To get tested at a state-run drive-through testing site at Jones Beach State Park or Stony Brook University:

  • Call 888-364-3065.
  • You will be asked questions about what COVID-19 symptoms you have.
  • The information is sent to a state database, and you are prioritized based on your answers to questions.
  • If you are eligible for testing, you will be called with an appointment time.

SOURCE: New York State Department of Health

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