Medical leaders announced Friday they are about to ramp up novel coronavirus testing across the region, a step that public health officials say is vital to easing restrictions and allowing people to return to more familiar lives.
About 8,000 people have been tested for the virus since early March in Erie County, which has a population of nearly 920,000 people.
More than 2,000 tested positive and 115 died.
"We really don't know how many people are infected. We also don't know how many people have had an immune reaction to the virus, so we're kind of flying blind," said Dr. John Tomaszewski, chief of service, pathology and laboratory medicine with Kaleida Health.
Kaleida has expanded its testing capabilities, so it is adding essential workers to the list of those who can be tested. Health care workers, first responders and those sickened with Covid-19 had already been eligible for testing.
Now, essential workers with a fever over 100 degrees, a cough and shortness of breath are eligible for testing – though they need to get a prescription from a health care provider.
Those who are eligible work in fields that include utilities, transportation, hotels, food processing, cleaning and maintenance, child care, auto repair, grocery and gasoline retail, pharmacy, and hardware/home improvement.
Testing will take place at outpatient drive-thru clinics in Amherst and Buffalo set up by Kaleida. Results will be determined within 48 hours at the health system's Center for Laboratory Medicine in Amherst.
The lab now has capability to handle as many as 300 tests a day, roughly the amount the Erie County lab has so far conducted each week, said Tomaszewski, also professor and chairman of pathology and anatomical sciences at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Erie County Medical Center is able to test about 200 kits each day and Catholic Health up to 300. The VA Western New York Health Care System conducts about 10 tests each day, said Dr. Thomas Russo, an infectious control specialist with the system.
An uptick in testing in Erie County took place before Friday's announcement, according to data from the state Department of Health.
Some 5,465 people were tested in the first 15 days of April, more than double the 2,207 who were tested in all of March.
Testing capacity grew from March 4 to March 31, with an average of 79 people tested per day.
The daily average for April through Wednesday was about 364 people tested each day, according to the state.
Many more need to be done.
Researchers said testing numbers and restrictions so far fail to provide a large enough window on how many people have been infected with the novel coronavirus and when it will be safe to ease efforts to stop its spread. Supply shortages, particularly reagents needed to process results, continues to blur that view across the region and nation.
Two commercial laboratories – Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp – also have rolled out more testing, though company officials this week could not be specific about the number of tests they can manage in the region.
Quest and Walmart joined forces to schedule up to 150 tests a day in Western New York for health care workers, first responders and those showing Covid-19 symptoms. The tests started Wednesday in the parking lot of the retail chain’s Cheektowaga location on Walden Avenue. Appointments are required through myquest.questdiagnostics.com.
“We continue to provide testing from 12 laboratories,” a Quest spokeswoman said. “Through these laboratories, we are now able to perform more than 35,000 Covid-19 tests a day (nationwide). In addition, we have reduced our backlog significantly.”
Turnaround time for test results at commercial labs is similar to the Kaleida lab, and sometimes longer.
Catholic Health can process a test kit within an hour, CEO Mark Sullivan said Friday afternoon. The health system continues to focus testing on patients and staff with respiratory symptoms but also will test symptomatic first responders who stop into any of its hospitals.
Last month, a lack of testing meant Catholic Health couldn't test more than 100 people in its hospitals suspected to have the virus. Not anymore.
"Every person that has symptoms, we swab and we test immediately," Sullivan said.
Expanding testing too much, he said, could impact testing capacity for a potential surge "that will be less than what we predicted but is still around the corner in the next two weeks."
Kaleida Health has worked with the Erie County Department of Health to expand testing, which began several weeks ago with symptomatic patients and its front-line workers.
As testing capabilities grew, the hospital system added those who are symptomatic with ties to the VA, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and ECMC, as well as Buffalo firefighters and police officers, and paramedics and emergency medical technicians who serve ambulance services and volunteer fire companies.
The next goal is to test those in the general public deemed symptomatic by their primary care providers, who must provide a prescription for testing.
New tests for the presence of Covid-19 antibodies also will help.
Kaleida announced Friday that it received its first shipment of antibody diagnostic testing materials from Abbott Laboratories and that its laboratory staff is working to validate its equipment for the testing process. The health system will be able to run up to 200 serology tests per hour, Tomaszewski said.
The tests will show whether someone has already been exposed to the virus. Infectious control specialists believe that will provide at least some immunity in the short term, and may allow those who have antibodies to resume more regular activities after two weeks, as public health directives allow.
The Erie County Public Health Laboratory can conduct 80 to 100 tests a day for the virus. There are no plans to expand that capacity, but the lab hopes to conduct antibody tests in the coming weeks, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.
A vaccine, which may take a year or more to develop, would make for better protection, Russo and Tomaszewski said.
Those with antibodies also figure into potential treatment for those who fall ill with Covid-19. Researchers with UB and Roswell Park are leading the effort to collect "convalescent plasma" from those who weathered the virus to help treat hospitalized patients with the disease who are fighting for their lives.
Those who tested positive for the virus are encouraged to complete an online questionnaire at forms.roswellpark.org/covid-plasma-donation or through UB. Those seeking more information can call Roswell at 800-767-9355 or UB at 888-4845.
The first donor provided antibodies on Monday. Experimental treatments are expected to become more available in coming weeks.
Those who believe they are eligible for novel coronavirus testing can go to kaleidahealth.org and answer a series of screening questions.
Testing questions can be directed to the Kaleida Health Coronavirus Hotline from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily at 859-3222.
An estimated 3.2 million of almost 330 million Americans have been tested for the novel coronavirus. Public health officials stress that negative results only show that someone did not have the virus at a given point in time and that things can change for those who come in contact with someone who carries the virus.
The U.S. Public Health Service offers the following priorities for testing patients with suspected Covid-19 infection:
Priority 1: Hospitalized patients and health care facility workers with symptoms
Priority 2: Patients in long-term care facilities with symptoms, patients 65 years of age and older with symptoms, patients with underlying conditions with symptoms, first responders with symptoms
Priority 3: Essential workers with symptoms, those who do not meet any of the above categories with symptoms, health care facility workers and first responders without symptoms, those with mild symptoms in communities experiencing high numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations
Others without symptoms