Expanded testing — and faster turnaround times — offer glimmer of hope in Virginia’s fight against COVID-19

Expanded testing — and faster turnaround times — offer glimmer of hope in Virginia’s fight against COVID-19
Health care workers screen a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through coronavirus testing site on March 18, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. Arlington County and Virginia Hospital Center have opened a temporary drive-through coronavirus testing site for Arlington residents and county employees with a letter from a licensed health-care provider. The results for patients tested are estimated to be available in 5-7 days. (Source: pixabay)

Virginia’s state laboratory in Richmond has quietly expanded its capacity for testing COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus. Dena Potter, director of communications for the Department of General Services (the agency under which the state lab operates), said it’s now able to test more than 2,000 patients for the virus — a significant increase from last week, when the lab’s capacity was at roughly 1,000 patients.

Results are generally delivered within 12 to 24 hours of the time when samples are received, she said.

As state officials rush to respond to the growing pandemic, the increase in testing provides a glimmer of hope. On Wednesday, VCU Health announced it had developed its own in-house test for COVID-19. Right now, it’s limited only to hospitalized patients with severe symptoms of the disease (and dependent on the hospital’s access to testing supplies such as reagents and swabs), but VCU “aims to obtain same-day results with this testing option,” according to a news release.

The same day, the University of Virginia announced it would begin offering its own in-house test to hospitals across the commonwealth. The capacity is still small — the university said it could perform up to 50 tests per day for patients who meet the state’s current guidelines for testing — but results can be delivered in 24 hours. UVA health experts eventually hope to reduce the turnaround time to 12 hours for outside hospitals.

It still isn’t clear how quickly the new capacity will expand testing opportunities for Virginians. Of the 5,370 people tested for the disease as of Wednesday, Potter said fewer than 700 were performed at the state laboratory. The Virginia Department of Health still has strict testing criteria, limiting access to high-risk populations such as health care workers and nursing home residents. That also prevents surveillance testing, in which public health officials go in search of the virus by testing people to determine where it might be spreading undetected, rather than just patients who meet the guidelines.

But even on a limited scale, broader access to high-turnaround testing is an important tool in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Currently, the vast majority of tests in Virginia are performed by private labs such as Quest and LabCorp, which announced they could perform their own coronavirus tests in early March.

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