Northwell to begin COVID-19 testing within the week

Chuck up: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (left) checks up on Northwell Health's coronavirus readiness alongside Executive Director of Laboratory Services Dwayne Breining.

Referencing past responses to swine flu and Ebola virus outbreaks, New York State’s largest healthcare system will begin testing for the dreaded novel coronavirus within days.

That according to Dwayne Breining, Northwell Health’s executive director of laboratory services, and a high-powered collection of lawmakers and healthcare experts gathered Monday at the Lake Success-based Northwell Center for Advanced Medicine.

Their message: With the U.S. Food & Drug Administration greenlighting new diagnostic technologies and giving licensed private laboratories the go-ahead to conduct COVID-19 testing, Northwell’s Core Lab – the 101,000-square-foot nerve center of the Center for Advanced Medicine and epicenter of the health system’s regional testing capabilities – should begin manual testing within days.

The lab will process between 75 and 100 daily coronavirus tests to start, with that capacity expected to quickly reach thousands of daily tests, according to Breining.

“Once the process is fully automated, we will have the ability to conduct tests within three to four hours of receiving samples at the lab,” the doctor added. “And report the results immediately.”

Michael Dowling: Stay calm, and wash your hands.

Before the new FDA rules kicked in, nasopharyngeal swab samples from patients who met the criteria for coronavirus testing had to be sent directly to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for testing, with turnaround times measured in days.

Northwell testing will be limited to patients who have been exposed to people infected with COVID-19 and patients sick enough to be hospitalized, at least to start. Citing CDC guidelines and “limited testing capacity,” the health system will not test patients exhibiting milder symptoms unless they are likely to have crossed paths with COVID-19.

Even with those limitations, Northwell expects to be busy with the novel coronavirus over the coming months. The plan is for the Core Lab to work directly with outside manufacturers to make testing available at health system hospitals throughout Long Island, New York City and Westchester, where rapid molecular testing for the seasonal flu, using similar technology, is already in play.

Breining was joined at Monday’s press event by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), underscoring the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although global stat-tracker Worldometer says 83 percent of current global novel coronavirus patients are in “mild condition” – and worldwide news outlets are looking to balance sensationalist media coverage by noting COVID-19 fatality rates are actually quite low – the rapid spread of the virus (92,000-plus global cases, and counting) has caused worldwide panic, and is already taking a serious economic toll.

And with the new testing guidelines coming into play, the number of reported COVID-19 cases is expected to skyrocket across New York and the United States, along with potential economic ramifications – prioritizing swift detection, treatment and control, according to Breining.

“The ability to have local lab-testing capability is vitally important,” he added. “With local labs, you can test quicker and get the results quicker.”

With the new testing capabilities coming online, the health system is “well-prepared to manage the challenges posed by the coronavirus,” according to Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling, who cited “our response to previous infectious-disease outbreaks, including our anthrax response in 2001, SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009 and Ebola in 2014” as evidence.

“It’s important for people to remain calm and take practical steps, such as routine handwashing,” added Dowling, noting such common-sense precautions are critical “to protect against not only the coronavirus, but the flu, which has already affected 26 million Americans this season and killed more than 16,000.”