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Erie County's lab can only run 450 COVID-19 tests. But help is on the way

In a county with nearly a million people, the Erie County Public Health Lab has enough testing materials to run only 450 tests for COVID-19.

For now.

That means many residents who want to be tested are being turned away because they don't meet the definition of a high-risk case.

Erie County's testing ability should be expanded by sometime next week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that the vice president and president have given approval for 28 of the labs across New York State to begin doing their own testing.

That would allow for up to 6,000 tests to be conducted across the state each day – twice the number that have been done in the entire state so far, Cuomo said.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein also said the county is ordering more chemicals to allow them to do more tests. In addition, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center are working to develop COVID-19 testing capacity.

"There will be a huge expansion of testing capacity in our community," Burstein said.

With sufficient supply, she said, the Erie County Public Health Lab can run up to 120 tests a day. It'll be able to run multiple batches of tests a day, with each batch accommodating 21 tests. So far, the county has only been doing one run a day for patients from Erie County and surrounding counties.

Roswell Park spokeswoman Annie Deck-Miller said that by sometime next week, Roswell expects to be able to do about 40 tests a day initially, and then about 100 or more tests a day after the phase-in period.

Getting tested

Until capacity ramps up, local residents who believe they may have been exposed to the virus must still call their primary care physicians to see if they meet the restrictive testing benchmarks laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Erie County Health Department.

That leaves some people waiting to see if they might eventually be allowed to submit a sample to the lab.

That includes those like Matt, a local financial services professional who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy over a medical issue. He visited New York City in late February and met with consultants who had traveled nationally and internationally.

After his return to the Buffalo area, he had a fever, fatigue, dry cough and shortness of breath. He tested negative for the flu. He kept asking his doctor and epidemiologists at the Erie County Department of Health if he should be tested for COVID-19.

They said no. Based on his travel history, they decided, he wasn't enough of a high-risk case to warrant testing.

"They basically said there’s not enough capacity for a test," he said.

In the meantime, he's working from home and trying to self-quarantine as best he can. His doctor believes he has a respiratory infection, which is common, he said.

"I do not want to get close to my parents who are in their 60s, and my grandparents who are in their 90s, until I’ve been told I do not have the virus," he said.

Residents concerned they may have symptoms associated with COVID-19 are encouraged to contact their primary care doctors before going anywhere, unless their symptoms are serious enough for an emergency room visit.

While Roswell Park's labs will soon be able to test for COVID-19, the cancer treatment center is not accepting any patient walk-ins for direct COVID-19 testing.

Who is approved

If a person's physician believes testing might be warranted, the doctor is still expected to consult with epidemiologists at the county health department to determine whether he or she meets the current testing benchmark.

Burstein has said the county will authorize testing for COVID-19 for individuals who have:

  • Come within proximate contact (same classroom, office or gatherings) of another person known to be positive
  • Traveled to a country that has a CDC-issued Level 2 or Level 3 travel health notice and shows symptoms of illness
  • Showed symptoms of COVID-19 if under mandatory or precautionary quarantine
  • Showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and has not tested positive for any other infection

A treating clinician, in consultation with state and local health officials, could find facts and circumstances that warrant testing for others.

If someone is believed to have been exposed to the new coronavirus, specimens may be collected at doctor's offices, urgent care centers or hospitals, Burstein said. Or, the patient may be directed to an Erie County clinic for specimen collection. A nurse may also travel to an individual's home to collect the samples.

The specimens collected are swabs taken from the nose and back of the throat, Burstein said. If a patient is also coughing up mucus, that may also be collected for testing.

The Public Health Lab is currently turning around tests in a day's time.

Feds approve tests

The anticipated expansion of testing comes after Cuomo announced Friday that 28 more private labs will be able to test New Yorkers by sometime next week.

Cuomo spoke with President Trump and Vice President Pence, who approved a request for the federal government to decentralize regulations of coronavirus testing facilities.

While the county's Public Health Lab is running tests manually, more private facilities will have the ability to do automated testing, which has been described by the governor as a "game changer."

As of Friday, the state reported 421 positive cases of COVID-19, an increase of 96 from Thursday. The cases are still centered downstate, though new counties upstate are being added each day. As of late Friday afternoon, there were no confirmed cases in Western New York.

Keeping perspective

Cuomo stressed that the increased capacity for testing, and the anticipated increase in confirmed cases, is not a reflection of how many cases there are in New York State. It's only a mechanism for identifying who has the virus so that communities can slow the spread of the illness.

"My guess is there are thousands and thousands of cases walking around the State of New York," he said.

Cuomo reiterated that panic is unwarranted. Of the 421 confirmed cases in the state, only 50 people have been hospitalized. That represents 12% of cases, and many of those likely fall in the higher risk categories, such as seniors and those with chronic health conditions.

There have been no deaths.

Closer to home, Matt, the local financial services professional, says has been working from his house and self-quarantining. He's left only to visit the doctor and go grocery shopping, and he's worn a mask each time. He's still dealing with a dry cough and has lost 12 pounds due to a lack of appetite.

"I do feel like I’m slowly getting better," he said.

But he worries about other people who might have COVID-19 and aren't taking any precautions. So he's glad to know more testing will be available to local residents soon.

"Until we’re able to do the testing," he said, "we don’t know what we don’t know."

Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this story.

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