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New tool offers hope of easing logjam, but government must provide funding

Catholic Health is poised to become the premier provider of tests for Covid-19 in Western New York, with a diagnostic tool that delivers results in just 45 minutes. This is one of the most hopeful developments our region has seen in its effort to flatten the curve and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The health system’s CEO, Mark Sullivan, said Sunday that Catholic Health will spend millions of dollars to buy a three-month supply of tests from Cepheid, a diagnostic company in Silicon Valley, whose testing tool was granted emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

However, Sullivan said Catholic Health needs the state or federal government to buy 72,000 nasal swabs and other specimen kits to make the testing work. This is a high priority for Western New York, a chance for officials with influence in Albany or Washington to make sure the funding gets here.

The Cepheid tests will work with the company’s GeneXpert testing machines, which Catholic Health also owns and operates in each of its hospitals. This won’t be a test available to the merely virus-curious, but will be aimed at patients already in a hospital or emergency room, and for testing medical personnel.

“It needs to be used very sparingly for patients who really need it and for health care workers who really need it,” Cepheid’s chief medical officer, David Persing, said over the weekend.

The speed at which the test can be administered is what sets it apart. It is the first known test that can be used at the point of care, meaning patient samples need not be sent out to a separate lab for processing.

“At the county, they can do 100 tests a day,” Sullivan said Sunday. “The system that was approved (Saturday) by the FDA, I can do 800 in a day,” or about 24,000 in a month.

One of the hospitals employing the GeneXpert machine is the St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga, which Sullivan announced last week is being converted to a full-time facility for treating Covid-19 patients.

Testing provides hospitals with the ability to make the most efficient use of their resources in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, knowing how to allocate isolation or ICU rooms, ventilators and the like.

“We need to be using the tests for the people who come in who are symptomatic, not testing people as a preventive measure,” Sullivan said.

The United States is still playing catch-up in instituting widespread testing, which has left Erie County with fewer kits than it needs. According to the Covid Tracking Project, a database created by Related Sciences and The Atlantic magazine, about 246,000 coronavirus tests had been performed in the U.S., as of Monday, and 61,400 in New York State. The nation of South Korea runs approximately 20,000 tests per day, which has made it a leading example of flattening the curve.

Public officials will also need testing data to inform their decision-making when pressures start to build for social distancing to end and society and businesses to start resuming normal activities. Accurate testing will guide those decisions. With this test, we can provide that.

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