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In new process, Northwell scientists to check hundreds of coronavirus tests a day

Northwell Health Lab executive director Dr. Dwayne Breining spoke Wednesday about how Northwell scientists are increasing the amount of coronavirus tests they process, thanks to new semi-automatic testing.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

Northwell scientists are ramping up the amount of coronavirus tests they process at their Lake Success laboratory Wednesday, expanding from about 60 tests a day to, eventually, as many as 500.

The new semi-automatic testing, as the scientists call it, means that people who believe they have the virus can potentially get tested faster, the scientists said. As well, they said the higher volume will allow the lab to do more testing on people who are not among the sickest and most vulnerable.

"We're trying to develop as much good quality testing capacity as fast as we can develop it," said Dr. Dwayne Breining, Northwell Health Lab's executive director.

Breining said the 100,000-square-foot lab expects to shift to fully automated testing within two weeks, which will allow workers to process a few thousand tests a day.

The announcement by Northwell Health Labs comes as the coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, and the demand for testing rises.

Breining cautioned that the lab would need to have access to enough high-volume cartridges to meet those estimates, and that other labs are also wanting them.

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"Every other lab is trying to ramp up like we are," Breining said.

For now, the lab is prioritizing the sickest patients in hospitals, who need to get results as quickly as possible, he said. The lab is receiving samples from the state Department of Health and hospitals in the region.

The lab is getting most of its samples from Northwell facilities, and it has received some samples from the Nassau and Suffolk departments of health, he said.

New York State and New York City received federal approval to do their own analyses more than a week ago.

The Lake Success lab has processed about 150 samples since it started testing Sunday night, Breining said, and he hoped it would be able to add another 100 to that Wednesday.

Under the former, manual system, a lab technician had to handle individual test tubes, working on them each step along the testing process. Under the semi-automated system, a lab tech simply loads each sample into a cartridge about the size of a big cellphone and places it into a machine that does the rest, he said. The full processing takes about 2 1/2 hours, he said.

These machines are hooked into the lab's computer systems, which are networked with doctor offices, urgent care centers and others.

"So when we get the result, the result is automatically transmitted where it needs to be," Breining said. Before, the results had to be entered by hand, he added.

The fully automated system could eventually allow a tech to load samples from 100 or more patients at a time into a machine, with results coming out in 2 1/2 hours, he said.

Breining offered a broad explanation as to which patients have the highest priority. He said that a patient who is on a ventilator, and who may have exposed others, would be among the highest priority for testing. Next would be someone who is sick and in an isolation ward.

“By and large, patients who do not have any symptoms of any illness are not getting tested,” Breining said. “They're the lowest priority.”

The lab is working 24/7, he said, and is now capable of getting results the same day of receiving samples, rather than the next day under the manual system. He said the lab has spent $2.5 million to ramp up this work, and expects there might be some government reimbursement.

The lab offered reporters a tour of the facility Wednesday. Inside a large room, workers in blue smocks, rubber gloves and clear-plastic face guards loaded test samples.

Lab tech Ka Wai Chan carefully dipped a dropper into a small test tube and placed some of it into a white cartridge. She then placed the cartridge into a machine, removed her plastic gloves and went on to the next sample.

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