Catholic Health is ready to purchase a new test for Covid-19 that is able to detect the virus far faster than previous methods.
The system, which could process 800 tests per day, works only on machines that Catholic Health already owns and uses in each of its local hospitals.
Mark Sullivan, Catholic Health CEO, said Sunday afternoon he's ready to place an order Monday with Cepheid, the California company whose test, announced last month, was approved Saturday by the Food and Drug Administration for use in Cepheid's molecular testing units.
"It's a whole different test. Picture this. It's the difference between a candle and electricity," Sullivan said in an interview with The Buffalo News.
And it would make Catholic Health, not the Erie County Public Health Laboratory, the center for Covid-19 testing in the region.
On Saturday, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said about 300 test results were still pending at the county lab, including 98 from surrounding counties. Some had been waiting since Tuesday, Poloncarz said on Facebook.
"At the county, they can do 100 tests a day," Sullivan said. "The system that was approved (Saturday) by the FDA, I can do 800 in a day. The current testing is a couple days' turnaround time. This is 45 minutes."
He said Catholic Health will spend millions of dollars to buy 72,000 tests from Cepheid, which should be three months' worth.
But Catholic Health needs testing supplies to go with however many tests it purchases from Cepheid.
Sullivan wants the state or federal governments to buy 72,000 nasal swabs and other specimen collection kits and allocate them to Western New York.
"As we know, Western New York is often under-resourced and not at the top of the list," Sullivan said. "This is a game-changer. We're testing very few in Erie County because there's not enough supply for that type of test."
During a Sunday afternoon news conference, Sullivan said Cepheid, along with federal and state governments, would determine Monday which areas of the country would get the tests.
"We currently know that there is a cap on the number of tests that Catholic Health will receive, and substantially below its capacity for production," Sullivan said. "That’s a problem.
"So I’m reaching out to ... all the elected officials that are listening to take action now. Western New York does not have enough testing, and we do not have the weapons we need for our health departments, and our caregivers at bedside, that are trying to support our community."
Sullivan said he had talked with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes about obtaining test supplies.
Asked whether there is a possibility that Catholic Health would not be able to do 800 tests a day, Sullivan said:
"Only if the parties in power don't give us the test kits. My team is committed to do 800 tests a day … if we receive the test kits and the sampling kits."
Erie County officials have said there is a shortage of swabs. The Cepheid test can use a saline wash if no swabs are available, according to the company.
"I praise them for being first to market. It's really going to change the war on Covid," Sullivan said. "You're going to go from 100 tests a day to 800 tests a day without me adding a single staff member. We'll be able to test health care workers, if that is deemed appropriate."
Cepheid envisions its new test for use in hospitals to determine a patient's Covid-19 status quickly and allocate treatment resources, such as isolation rooms.
"We don’t believe this technology should be used, at least initially, in a doctor’s office," David Persing, chief medical officer of Cepheid, said in an article on the medical news website statnews.com. "This is not a test for the worried well."
"If we have 100 patients that have Covid-like symptoms, 20 of them will need to be hospitalized, 15 of them in a normal hospital setting and 5 of them will be in an ICU or critical care bed," Sullivan said. "We need to be using the tests for the people who come in who are symptomatic, not testing people as a preventive measure."
Jim Jarnot, laboratory technical director for Catholic Health, said a test run at the Erie County lab takes about four hours, while the new system will read the results in about 45 minutes. Since any Catholic hospital can do the test, more time will be saved in specimen delivery.
Jarnot said once the Cepheid kits arrive from California, Catholic Health lab technicians will test their accuracy for about a day and then be ready to test patients' samples, perhaps as soon as Thursday.
"We're excited. If Catholic Health is really able to acquire these new lab testing capabilities for Covid-19, it will really help our community better understand the epidemic," said Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner.
"Right now we are really limited, not only by laboratory reagents but also by viral swab collection kits. If Catholic Health is able to do more laboratory testing and able to acquire the viral collection kit swabs, we'll be able to open up Covid-19 testing in Erie County," Burstein said.
But Burstein said the county lab would continue to perform its Covid-19 tests.
"We are good partners and we are able to do this in collaboration," Burstein said. "All the hospital systems are approaching this as a community effort. We would work together with Catholic Health as we have in the past with other public health challenges such as the opioid epidemic."
Burstein said she knows the public is "very focused on testing," but personal prevention efforts are more important in stopping the pandemic.
"People have to assume it's prevalent in the community and exposure is a big possibility, so it's really important that people practice those non-pharmaceutical interventions," Burstein said. Those include hand-washing, social distancing, staying away from sick people and cleaning surfaces.
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