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Local hospitals: lack of supplies is major hurdle to expanding COVID-19 tests

Coronavirus (Image provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

SARANAC LAKE — Testing for COVID-19 has been restricted at North Country hospitals for weeks, and many patients with symptoms are being asked by doctors to quarantine at home. Hospitals here say a lack of testing supplies remains their main obstacle as the virus continues to spread.

Representatives of three hospitals serving residents in Franklin and Essex counties — Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone and Elizabethtown Community Hospital — each said Thursday that testing for the disease caused by the coronavirus remains limited because there simply aren’t enough testing supplies.

With a nationwide shortage and critical supplies on back order, there’s also no guarantee that hospitals can replenish their supplies in a short amount of time.

Statewide, 391,549 people had been tested for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health. Of those, 159,937 tested positive.

In Franklin County, 155 negative test results have been received with 10 test-confirmed positive cases and 28 suspected cases as of Thursday morning, according to Franklin County Public Health.

The Franklin County Legislature on Thursday decided to release town-level COVID-19 data, according to county Manager Donna Kissane. That data is expected to be released sometime in the next few days.

In Essex County, a total of 133 people have been tested for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to the county Health Department. Eleven people have been tested and received positive results as of Thursday, one more than Wednesday. There were an additional 10 people who hadn’t been tested but were suspected to have COVID-19 as a result of a clinical evaluation, two more than Wednesday.

The town of North Elba and town of Moriah now are tied for the most cases of COVID-19 in Essex County. As of Thursday, North Elba had four test-confirmed cases and one suspected case, according to the health department. Moriah has two test-confirmed cases and three suspected cases.

Testing materials

AMC doesn’t have enough of the specialty nasal swabs, used for collecting specimens from patients, to test everyone with COVID-19 symptoms, according to spokesman Matt Scollin. Testing has been limited to people with symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization, plus corrections officers, health care workers and residents of group homes such as those run by Sunmount, a state institution for people with developmental disabilities.

ECH now has enough supplies to test inpatients, those with COVID-19 symptoms who have underlying risk factors, and health care workers, thanks to a recent delivery of supplies from the Essex County Health Department and University of Vermont Health Network — but it doesn’t have enough supplies to test everyone with symptoms, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Rogers.

At Alice Hyde, testing is restricted to inpatients, those awaiting admittance to the hospital, nursing home residents who meet specific criteria, health care workers who have a likelihood of being exposed to the virus, and people Franklin County Public Health has recommended for testing, according to spokesman Phillip Rau.

“The availability of COVID-19 test kits is a concern at Alice Hyde and hospitals across the country,” he said. “In order to maintain an adequate supply of test kits and ensure our most vulnerable and at-risk populations have access to emergent testing, we are restricting testing to the groups mentioned above.”

Community spread

Another element behind hospitals’ decisions to limit testing: Public health officials believe this area is now facing community spread, meaning cases are arising where the source of the person’s exposure to the virus is unclear.

“A person can be negative at the time of a test, but if they leave and touch a door handle somewhere, the test result is meaningless,” Scollin said. “The results are only as good as the lack of time you spend in the community after you get them. The course of treatment is to keep you at home, unless you can’t be home, in which case you’d be here with us anyway and be eligible for a test.”

Scollin said he believes restricting testing and preserving materials for patients with more severe symptoms, such as breathing difficulty, “makes sense ethically.”

“Unless you are sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, you should be managing symptoms at home,” he said. “There’s no cure for this that we’re aware of. There’s no vaccine that we’re aware of. We would just end up having one less test to use on someone with difficulty breathing. It seems like it makes sense ethically to save those tests. We are looking forward, like everybody else, to universal testing.”

Labs

Limited lab capacity is another factor in hospitals’ decisions to limit testing.

“If you quintuple in a day the number of tests being sent to a lab, you slow down the results,” Scollin said.

Though the state has brought dozens of private labs into the rotation to expand New York’s testing capabilities, many North Country hospitals still use the same state lab.

AMC, ECH and Alice Hyde all send samples for testing to Wadsworth Center in Albany.

In a case where a patient could have exposed many other people to the virus, and a fast result would help curb the spread of the virus further, results are expedited. These samples are transported by a New York State Police courier system to Albany, according to Scollin.

AMC also has the option of sending tests to labs throughout the Northeast via LabCorp, a private lab network, according to Scollin.

Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is still encouraged to call a local hospital or the state COVID-19 hotline.

AMC’s hotline is 518-897-2462, or people can use the hospital’s symptom checker at adirondackhealth.org/coronavirus. The Alice Hyde Medical Center’s hotline is 518-481-2700. The state hotline is 888-364-3065.

(Correction: The Adirondack Health coronavirus web link was incorrect in an earlier version of this report.)

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