Hospitals, State Moving to Expand COVID-19 Testing
UPMC officials yesterday announced the Pittsburgh-based health system is developing a test of its own to detect the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, which could help expand the capacity to quickly determine who has been infected—something that has been a shortcoming of the U.S. response to the worldwide outbreak of the novel strain of virus.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Health said it is ramping up its laboratory in Exton, Pa., Chester County to increase the number of samples it can evaluate daily from patients suspected of having the virus. So far, the lab has only been able to analyze 25 samples a day to determine whether patients have the virus.
Quick, accurate tests are critical to determining the scope of an outbreak of the virus in the state and region.
No cases of the virus have been confirmed in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The state Health Department reported 10 presumed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, all from the eastern part of the state. So-called “presumptive” cases are samples from patients that tested positive for the virus at the Exton lab and are awaiting confirmation from the national Centers for Disease Control laboratory.
But it’s unclear how many patients have been tested so far in southwestern Pennsylvania and across the state. State and local health officials declined to provide specifics on how many Pennsylvanians have been tested, following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“We are not providing information on those tested, outside of our presumed positive cases,” said Nate Wardle, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Health Department. The Allegheny County Health Department also declined to provide information on potential cases or the testing of county residents.
UPMC officials followed suit at a press conference yesterday to announce the effort to develop its own COVID-19 test. “I’ll follow the public health guidance and not disclose the specific details of our testing,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC.
At the moment, the only facility in the state capable of testing biological samples for the virus is the state laboratory in Exton.
The laboratory has been testing samples for COVID-19 since February. The state is expanding the lab’s capacity to process samples from 25 samples per day to 150.
“Once the test is taken, the sample is transported by courier to the state lab, and then tested,” Wardle said. “The test, depending on time received, takes about 4–6 hours.”
Dr. Alan Wells, medical director of UPMC’s clinical laboratories, said UPMC is developing a test that will be able to diagnose patients within the same day. The test would enable UPMC researchers to analyze samples from their base in Oakland. Once the process is ready, it will be available throughout the health system.
In addition to sending samples to the state lab, Dr. Wells said UPMC would also rely on testing performed by the research company Quest Diagnostics, as the need arises. “We expect these locations to be stretched for capacity,” he said. Quest Diagnostics did not respond to questions regarding their testing capacity submitted on Monday.
How long it could take UPMC to develop the new test is unclear. In a statement, the health system said only that it could take “weeks.”
The Pennsylvania Health Department said people concerned about whether they may have the coronavirus should call the department at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258).