Now testing, Northwell eyes COVID-19 acceleration

This is a test: Northwell Health Labs medical technician Ka Wai Chan, on coronavirus patrol.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

The coronavirus is moving fast – but so is Northwell Health, which hopes to shake off federal shackles and step up the pace on COVID-19 testing.

The New Hyde Park-based health system already has, actually: Via an emergency-use authorization approved Tuesday by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Northwell Health Labs on Wednesday began semi-automated testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – and the semi-automated testing is hitting the gas.

Between Sunday evening – when Northwell Health Labs began manual testing – and Wednesday, the facility processed roughly 130 total tests. Switching to the semi-automated system will kick that up to about 160 a day, Northwell Health Labs Executive Director Dwayne Breining said Wednesday, “and then to several hundred a day later this week.”

And the health system – New York State’s largest, by number of patients and number of providers – may just be getting started. Northwell officials are pressing the FDA to approve the lab’s molecular diagnostic systems, developed by California-based GenMark Diagnostics, for fully automated processing, which could give Northwell Health Labs the ability to process more than 1,000 test per day, according to Breining.

Dwayne Breining: Automatic transmission.

While the need for speed is evident – 130,000 total cases reported worldwide, 56,700 active cases, 4,750 deaths, all going up – the ability to test hundreds or even thousands of patients per day doesn’t mean everyone with a suspicious symptom will be assessed. COVID-19 testing “will continue to be reserved for those at risk for severe disease or who have had confirmed close contact with an infected individual,” according to Northwell Health.

“Even as our testing capacity increases, we will continue to screen people judiciously so we can focus our attention on those most at risk for severe COVID-19 infection,” John D’Angelo, Northwell Health’s chairman of emergency medicine, said in a statement. “Only people who meet that criteria will be tested.”

That testing is being performed at hospital-based emergency departments and urgent-care centers throughout the Northwell Health system, which manages 18 emergency departments across Long Island, New York City and Westchester County.

While the testing is done at remote sites, the tests are processed – semi-automatically, for the time being – at Northwell Health Labs, the $60 million nerve center of the health system’s Lake Success-based Center for Advanced Medicine. The 110,000-square-foot Core Lab facility, opened in 2019, also performs laboratory testing for other hospitals and health systems in the Greater New York region.

Northwell has invested more than $2 million in recent weeks to prepare the laboratory for the COVID-19 epidemic, including the purchase of new lab supplies and equipment – part of a total $5 million effort to gird the health system for the coronavirus fight, according to a statement.

But despite the extra prep work at Northwell Health Labs and throughout the system, it is essential that community members remember that COVID-19 testing will be reserved for patients who “require more immediate and intensive medical attention,” according to D’Angelo.

“All others who are concerned about exposure, but who have mild or no symptoms, should recuperate at home,” the chairman added.