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New York City Hospitals Struggle To Get Virus Testing Online Amid Patient Surge

Mar 31, 2020
Originally published on April 1, 2020 1:07 pm

Some New York City hospitals are still unable to perform reliable on-site coronavirus testing for patients and staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 and must instead wait days for results from outside laboratories, even as the city's hospital beds fill up with seriously ill people.

For weeks, pathology departments and laboratory facilities associated with hospitals in New York City have been focused on getting on-site testing with a quick turnaround set up so they don't have to rely on outside laboratories. The goal is to get coronavirus test results within 24 hours for doctors, nurses and patients who show symptoms of COVID-19.

The longer it takes to test medical workers and patients, the more risk there is that the virus will spread within hospitals.

A major hospital in Brooklyn, SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, struggled for more than three weeks to get the chemical reagents they needed to begin on-site testing for the virus while its beds were quickly taken over by COVID-19 patients. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated the hospital as one of three COVID-only facilities on Saturday, while the hospital was still dependent on outside laboratories to run coronavirus tests for its patients and staff members.

On Monday, the chair of the hospital's Department of Pathology, Dr. Jennifer Libien, said her team had finally received all the testing materials and was rushing to validate tests so they can begin on-site coronavirus testing by Wednesday.

It is unclear whether some other major facilities in New York City have the ability to rapidly test for coronavirus on-site. On Monday, a spokesperson for New York University's hospital system declined to comment on whether on-site coronavirus testing was available at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.

A spokesperson for St. Barnabas Hospital said Monday that testing samples are being collected for six hours each day in a tent in the parking area of the hospital. The hospital is waiting four to six days to receive test results. Health care workers who are "presumed positive" are self-quarantining at home for seven days.

Other hospitals, including Montefiore in the Bronx, say they have sufficient on-site testing for their patients and staff. Montefiore's Westchester Square hospital has also been designated as a COVID-only facility.

A voluntary list of COVID-19 testing laboratories maintained by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, a clinical laboratory trade group, includes only one New York City hospital location: New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. New York-Presbyterian's hospital system has multiple laboratories that are currently turning around test results in 24 hours or less.

Meanwhile, two overflow hospitals have also opened in New York City. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort and the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan are expected to serve patients who do not have COVID-19. Nonetheless, according to the Navy, the Comfort has coronavirus testing capabilities on board, in case a patient or staff member begins to show symptoms.

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health would not comment on whether the Javits Center field hospital has the ability to test patients and medical workers for the coronavirus.

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Some New York City hospitals are waiting days for coronavirus test results. And that is making it harder to control the spread of the virus inside those hospitals and to protect doctors and nurses. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Seriously ill people are flooding New York City's hospitals. Emergency rooms are full. In order to limit the spread of the coronavirus within hospitals, medical workers need to identify likely COVID-19 patients and separate them into COVID-only spaces. And medical workers who get sick need to know if they have COVID-19, but that's difficult for hospitals that can't do their own testing.

Dr. Jennifer Libien is the director of pathology at SUNY-Downstate hospital in Brooklyn.

JENNIFER LIBIEN: Having your own tests really puts you in control of being able to take care of your own patients and also your physicians and your nurses and all of your health care workers.

HERSHER: Libien spent weeks trying to get coronavirus testing up and running at their hospital, which is a major medical center.

LIBIEN: We're the only hospital that has the capability of doing some of these tests within Brooklyn, which, on its own, has 2.6 or 2.7 million people.

HERSHER: But more than three frustrating weeks went by, and Libien and her colleagues still didn't have the chemical reagents they needed to start testing. Orders were getting cancelled or indefinitely delayed. The state and city governments said they were trying to help. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases was surging. More than half the hospital's patients had coronavirus symptoms as of last week. And then on Saturday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that three hospitals in the city would be designated as COVID-only, and SUNY-Downstate was one of them. At that point, they were still relying on a small private lab for all their testing, and that lab was running out of supplies.

On Monday, Libien said the hospital had finally received the chemical reagents they need. Her team was racing to validate the tests and expect they'll be able to start offering testing on Wednesday. Some large hospital systems, including NewYork-Presbyterian and Northwell Health, say they do have rapid testing for their patients and staff. But St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx is currently waiting four to six days for test results for hospital workers. A resident at a major hospital in Brooklyn, who spoke anonymously because he had been told not to speak to the press and feared it would affect his job, told NPR that he was scared for his own health and for his colleagues who can't get tested quickly and could spread the virus to their families or to patients before they realize they're sick.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.