Sentara opens COVID-19 testing lab

Published 10:18 pm Monday, April 6, 2020

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Sentara Healthcare has opened its in-house COVID-19 testing laboratory at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, allowing it to expand testing and speed up results for people at its hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina.

Sentara has said this will shorten wait times for results by absorbing test volume currently going to commercial labs.

It said the goal is to incrementally work toward completing 1,000 tests per day within a few weeks and return test results within one to two days. It can currently take at least 10 days for commercial labs to complete testing due to high volumes and limited testing capacity.

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The new testing capabilities come as data released Monday from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association show that there are 538 positive COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Virginia. Another 656 patients who are hospitalized in the state are awaiting COVID-19 test results.

New capabilities

Sentara bought an Abbott m2000 RealTime testing instrument and related supplies and equipment while creating a dedicated COVID-19 testing lab in a former lab conference room.

“Sentara is fortunate to have the resources to respond to this crisis and begin our own testing within a few weeks,” Dr. Tabetha Sundin, scientific director of the Sentara Molecular Laboratory, said in a news release. “Waiting for test results can be nerve-wracking for our patients. We are doing all we can to speed up results and provide answers.”

Sentara couriers shuttle lab samples of all kinds from its locations to the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital lab as much as seven times per day, which it said would help with quicker test results.

The Suffolk News-Herald first reported on March 27 that Sentara would be developing the laboratory and shift its efforts from its mobile testing sites, which it had set up at several sites around Hampton Roads over the past several weeks. It closed the mobile testing sites March 31, though Sentara said it could add them again in the future. It has also added a COVID-19 online assessment tool on its website, Sentara has said that people who think they need to be tested should use the self-screening tool there, and if they think they meet the criteria for testing, call their primary care provider for additional guidance.

The in-house lab is also expected to help Sentara preserve personal protective equipment, or PPE, across its network of hospitals. People who meet the testing criteria are presumed to be positive until a negative test result comes back, meaning all employees working with those patients must wear full PPE.

“With this new testing instrument online, additional priority will be given to patients tested in our emergency departments and to Sentara employees who need to be tested,” said Eric Young, director of Sentara Laboratory Services, in a news release. “The final phase will include patients swabbed at doctors’ offices and test kits from other health care organizations who are current clients of Sentara Laboratory Services.”

Sentara Obici president Coleen Santa Ana said recently that Obici and other hospitals are all under-resourced and facing PPE shortages and that it’s trying to conserve its supply.

State signs contracts for supplies

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday announced that the state had signed a $27 million contract with Virginia-based logistics company Northfield to acquire PPE, with a shipment set to arrive from Asia by April 13.

The state also signed a contract with trucking company SD Trucking to handle logistics and distribution, Northam said, and it has started the shipment of 56,000 meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, to go to foodbanks around the state, which he said can supply the foodbanks for the next six weeks. The state has also begun shipping hand sanitizer as well as one million old H1N1 masks and other supplies to be reconditioned and distributed by VHHA. The state health department has also shipped another supply of materials from the strategic national stockpile to hospitals.

New data available

Statewide, hospitals have 2,566 ventilators, with 666 of them in use, according to VHHA data released Monday, with 5,519 beds available at state hospitals. The association noted there are 11 Virginia hospitals that could be without enough PPE in the next three days, with one hospital that could have difficulty obtaining or replenishing other medical supplies in the same timeframe. Those hospitals are not identified.

Sentara is asking that only those older adults with symptoms or people with underlying health conditions come to one of its emergency departments for testing or treatment of their symptoms. It said that will help preserve the PPE supply by only having to use it on known positive COVID-19 patients.

Statewide, 11.7 percent of the 24,521 people who have been tested for COVID-19 have tested positive, with 2,878 positive cases and 54 deaths reported as of Monday morning, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The state health department reports 59 positive COVID-19 cases in the Western Tidewater Health District — 28 of those in Suffolk, 22 in Isle of Wight County, five in Southampton County and four in Franklin.

However, it is unclear how many people in each locality have been tested, and the state health department, in response to a request from the News-Herald, said it did not have that information. Also, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Monday that the state cannot track those who have recovered from COVID-19 because that information is not being reported to the state health department. He added that positive case numbers reported underrepresent the actual number of cases statewide due to a lack of testing.

Hampton Roads at risk?

According to models by Columbia University epidemiologists first reported over the weekend by Politico, the area around Hampton Roads is at risk of having its health infrastructure overrun. It will have one of the state’s three field hospitals — at the Hampton Roads Convention Center in Hampton — to take pressure off of the region’s hospitals.

Sentara Obici and other hospitals have canceled elective procedures per Northam’s executive order, and hospital officials have said that has freed up “significant capacity” at Obici and other hospitals. In advance of a possible surge in COVID-19 cases in Virginia, Sentara, Bon Secours and Suffolk Fire and Rescue have been asking for, and receiving, PPE donations.

Northam has said the surge could come between late April and late May. Northam called for people to continue practicing social distancing and frequent hand washing.

“In the weeks to come, we cannot relax our vigilance against this virus,” Northam said. “The more everyone stays home, the safer we all will be.”

Northam, at his Monday press conference, called for Virginia residents to wear masks if they go out in public. However, he cautioned that doesn’t mean people can lighten up on social distancing, as the masks only have a limited effectiveness. Though state law prohibits people from wearing masks to conceal themselves in public, Northam said no one would be stopped by police for wearing them during the pandemic.

The governor also announced that the Department of General Services’ Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services would be one of the first public health labs in the United States to use genetic technology to help public health officials better understand and track the spread of COVID-19 to help with efforts to prevent and respond to the pandemic.