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New York City Hospitals Struggle To Get Virus Testing Online Amid Patient Surge

A spokesperson for St. Barnabas Hospital said Monday that it takes four to six days for the hospital to receive coronavirus test results.
Misha Friedman
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A spokesperson for St. Barnabas Hospital said Monday that it takes four to six days for the hospital to receive coronavirus test results.

Some New York City hospitals are still unable to perform reliable on-site coronavirus testing for patients and staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 and must instead wait days for results from outside laboratories, even as the city's hospital beds fill up with seriously ill people.

For weeks, pathology departments and laboratory facilities associated with hospitals in New York City have been focused on getting on-site testing with a quick turnaround set up so they don't have to rely on outside laboratories. The goal is to get coronavirus test results within 24 hours for doctors, nurses and patients who show symptoms of COVID-19.

The longer it takes to test medical workers and patients, the more risk there is that the virus will spread within hospitals.

A major hospital in Brooklyn, SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, struggled for more than three weeks to get the chemical reagents they needed to begin on-site testing for the virus while its beds were quickly taken over by COVID-19 patients. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated the hospital as one of three COVID-only facilities on Saturday, while the hospital was still dependent on outside laboratories to run coronavirus tests for its patients and staff members.

On Monday, the chair of the hospital's Department of Pathology, Dr. Jennifer Libien, said her team had finally received all the testing materials and was rushing to validate tests so they can begin on-site coronavirus testing by Wednesday.

It is unclear whether some other major facilities in New York City have the ability to rapidly test for coronavirus on-site. On Monday, a spokesperson for New York University's hospital system declined to comment on whether on-site coronavirus testing was available at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.

A spokesperson for St. Barnabas Hospital said Monday that testing samples are being collected for six hours each day in a tent in the parking area of the hospital. The hospital is waiting four to six days to receive test results. Health care workers who are "presumed positive" are self-quarantining at home for seven days.

Other hospitals, including Montefiore in the Bronx, say they have sufficient on-site testing for their patients and staff. Montefiore's Westchester Square hospital has also been designated as a COVID-only facility.

A voluntary list of COVID-19 testing laboratories maintained by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, a clinical laboratory trade group, includes only one New York City hospital location: New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. New York-Presbyterian's hospital system has multiple laboratories that are currently turning around test results in 24 hours or less.

Meanwhile, two overflow hospitals have also opened in New York City. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort and the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan are expected to serve patients who do not have COVID-19. Nonetheless, according to the Navy, the Comfort has coronavirus testing capabilities on board, in case a patient or staff member begins to show symptoms.

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health would not comment on whether the Javits Center field hospital has the ability to test patients and medical workers for the coronavirus.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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