Rapid testing for coronavirus has started in Albany and Atlanta

Testing for coronavirus is poised for a big boost in some Georgia hospitals that have begun shifting to in-house rapid tests able to dramatically reduce the turnaround time for results.

Staff at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, which has been hit hard by the virus, brought a new diagnostic test online Thursday night that returns results “in a matter of hours,” said Dr. Steve Kitchen, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Previously, test results for Phoebe Putney patients typically took four days to turn around once they were sent to a commercial lab, Quest Diagnostics. The quicker return time should help hospital staff track down patients not showing any symptoms, send people home faster who test negative and save supplies of crucial protective gear, Kitchen said.


“We’re going to test every patient who gets admitted to our hospital, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not,” Kitchen said Friday.

Emory University Hospital also recently launched three new in-house testing platforms that can secure results in 24 hours, said Dr. Colleen Kraft, the hospital’s associate chief medical officer. Before then, results from commercial labs took seven to 10 days.

The in-house testing has “dramatically changed” the hospital’s workflow as staff gear up for an anticipated “super surge” of patients later this month, Kraft said in a video briefing with reporters Friday.

Diagnostic testing for COVID-19 has lagged across the country, including in Georgia. As of noon Friday, 25,265 tests had been completed in the state, mostly by commercial labs. By that time, 5,831 people had tested positive and 184 had died.

Statewide, testing is poised to swell as several university research labs and the state public health lab embark on an effort to process more than 3,000 samples per day, Gov. Brian Kemp announced earlier this week.

At Phoebe Putney, hospital staff had been limited until Thursday night to collecting nasal swab samples and sending them to New York-based Quest Diagnostics for testing. Now, the South Georgia hospital has equipment and software in its lab that returns results within a few hours, using a process that checks whether a patient’s swab sample matches COVID-19’s genetic makeup, Kitchen said.

Hospital staff can now send someone home if they test positive more quickly, eliminating the need to use up precious treatment space and employee time, Kitchen said. Positive patients can now also be quickly isolated rather than left in areas where there may be other people who have not yet contracted the virus but are awaiting test results.

“They would have exposed patients and nurses unknowingly,” Kitchen said. “I think this is a very effective strategy from a hospital standpoint to reduce the transmission.”

Kitchen said the speedy test is airtight, with a near-perfect accuracy rating for positive cases and a less than 10% chance results will produce any false negatives. It was purchased from Cepheid, a California company, which late last month received U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency approval to market its rapid testing method.

Meanwhile, health experts like Kitchen and Kraft contend the most effective way to curb the spread of coronavirus is for people to isolate themselves from each other, not the increase in testing.

For her part, Kraft said Friday she considers the public attention paid to diagnostics testing in recent weeks a “contrived concern” when compared to the need for mass social distancing practices. Even with slow turnaround times, Kraft said test results for the brand new virus are still coming in very fast.

“We are doing the best we can with diagnostic testing in general,” Kraft said.

On Friday afternoon, Phoebe Putney’s hospital campuses were treating 78 people infected with coronavirus. Hundreds of people have poured into the hospital in recent weeks, and 36 have died from the virus. More than 1,300 test results were still pending.

The influx of patients has stretched the hospital’s staff to the max, Kitchen said. But they have risen to the occasion.

“I’ll be honest, I can’t say enough about how they’ve responded to an extraordinarily difficult challenge of meeting the needs of these patients,” Kitchen said.

“And knowing that they’re putting themselves at some increased risk,” he added. “It is really inspiring to watch how they’re responding.”

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