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Local hospitals develop in-house COVID-19 testing capacity for faster results

Several area hospitals can now process COVID-19 test samples in-house. This means faster test results, but only for a limited number of samples. 

Beebe, Bayhealth and Nanticoke health systems have all begun processing some coronavirus test samples in-house at their labs in Kent and Sussex Counties. 

Until recently, those hospitals collected nasopharyngeal swabs then sent the specimens off-site for testing at commercial labs or the state’s public health lab in Smyrna. 

Chris Dukes, senior director of laboratory services at Bayhealth Medical Center, says the in-house test takes a little over an hour from sample collection to result. That's much shorter than the 24- to 48-hour turnaround time at the state’s lab, or the several days a result can take to come back from a commercial lab. 

But because Bayhealth received only 120 test cartridges in its first shipment late last week, Dukes says the health system is limiting in-house testing to around ten high-priority cases per day.

“Right now it’s a wide variety of criteria that we look at,” he said. “One of the top things we’re looking at is a laboring mother who is symptomatic and needs to be ruled out because it affects the process of her childbirth … We’re looking at patients in our critical care areas or our EDs [emergency departments]. We’re looking at if they’ve previously tested positive or need testing before discharge.”

Dukes says he expects this criteria for in-house testing to “loosen” when Bayhealth gets more testing supplies. The health system has an order in for several hundred more reagent cartridges, which it hopes to receive next Thursday. 

Sussex County-based Beebe Healthcare received 120 COVID-19 testing cartridges around the same time as Bayhealth, and calibrated its machine for the in-house testing over the weekend. 

Dr. David Tam, the new president and CEO of Beebe, says the first “pillar” of addressing the pandemic at his health system is screening and testing as many people as possible. 

“We realized that in order for us to get test results back sooner and do it faster, we needed to develop our own in-house testing,” he said. “So within the span of probably a week after the whole COVID-19 crisis started, we had put in an order with a company in California, the Cepheid manufacturers [of the reagent cartridges].”

Tam says Beebe secured the cartridges after working with Delaware’s senators and Governor.

“We had to wait a little bit of time where as you can imagine everyone was clambering for these reagent cartridges,” he said. “It got to the point where FEMA was actually prioritizing where the manufacturer which is in California was sending those cartridges, to New York or Washington State.”

Beebe is also awaiting additional shipments of the test kits. 

Tam says rapid testing may help preserve personal protective equipment in hospitals. He gives the example of a patient admitted for respiratory symptoms who is not infected with the virus. 

“In the past, we would have sent that test off and not gotten an answer for five to six to seven days,” he said. “During that period of time, the nurses, the doctors, the techs, the housekeepers would all have to wear that really resource-limited personal protective equipment until we got the answer. So changing that to four to five hours ... and therefore preserving the use of PPE … is a huge positive impact on our ability to make sure that our caregivers are protected.”

A spokesperson for Seaford-based Nanticoke says that hospital started processing coronavirus tests in-house a week ago, but also has a “very limited” number of testing kits.

Wilmington-based Saint Francis does not have in-house testing capacity. 

ChristianaCare, which mainly serves New Castle County, says it is working with the State and community partners to develop strategies to enable sustained in-house testing. 

“At ChristianaCare, improving the accessibility and speed of COVID-19 testing continues to be a top priority,” said spokesperson Bill Schmitt in an emailed statement. “Efforts to develop and sustain in-house testing are subject to resource constraints that are impacting all health systems nationwide. The situation is rapidly, continually evolving.”

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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