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High-speed COVID-19 test lab unveiled

Another collaboration between Trudeau Institute and Adirondack Health

A look inside the new COVID-19 testing lab at Adirondack Medical Center. (Provided photo — Adirondack Health)

SARANAC LAKE — Two local public health institutions have teamed up to launch a new high-speed COVID-19 testing lab.

The lab, located at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, opened this past Friday. It’s a collaboration between biomedical research facility Trudeau Institute and Adirondack Health, which operates the local hospital.

This lab is the first of its kind in this region. The creation of this new lab — which currently has the capacity to process anywhere from 80 to 160 tests per day — means faster turnaround times for COVID test results.

Generally, tests take around two or three days to come back. In some cases, when labs outside of the area were overwhelmed, results took upward of 10 days to come back. With this in-house lab, tests can be processed in 24 hours, according to Adirondack Health spokesman Matt Scollin.

When a person is tested for COVID-19 here, usually the test sample is transported to a lab elsewhere for processing, such as the Wadsworth Center in Albany. The Wadsworth Center also processes samples from other parts of the state, and at times throughout the past few months, the lab struggled to process all of the samples being sent there.

“This laboratory gives us the ability to process tests locally, without the delays that can result from sending tests out of the area, or even out of state, to overwhelmed labs,” Adirondack Health President Sylvia Getman said in a statement.

The new lab is staffed by Adirondack Health technicians.

More accuracy

Health officials hope the new AMC lab will also produce more accurate results, because it was built with “the most accurate testing technology available,” according to a news release from Adirondack Health and Trudeau Institute. That technology is based on what’s called “PCR/RNA” diagnostic testing.

“PCR/RNA testing is the gold standard for accurate test results,” Dr. John Eckel, medical director of AMC’s lab, said in a statement. “When antigen tests are used with asymptomatic individuals, they can generate false negatives-and, unfortunately, a false sense of confidence.”

PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction, a technique that can detect the genetic information of viruses, starting with DNA or RNA, according to Discovery’s Edge, a research magazine by Mayo Clinic. The tests, which can detect the virus before people start experiencing symptoms, duplicate genetic material unique to the virus until enough is present to detect it, according to the news release from Adirondack Health and Trudeau Institute.

“Frequent testing, with accurate, speedy results, is the only way to ensure the Adirondacks and the North Country get the confidence to reopen as safely and sustainably as possible,” Trudeau Institute President Atsuo Kuki said in a statement. “This is a critical piece of that puzzle. As we enter a third wave of COVID infections, the surest way to guarantee this region has adequate testing capacity to stay open is to build it ourselves.”

Since March, more than 29,000 PCR tests from Franklin County have been processed. More than 25,000 tests have been processed from Essex County, according to the county Health Department.

The cost, future

The new lab is expected to cost more than $1 million, after additional processing equipment is installed there that will boost its capacity to 1,000 tests a day. The goal, according to a news release from both institutions, is for this nonprofit lab to become self-sustaining with revenue generated through testing.

Right now, the lab is prioritizing testing for people who need results quickly: first responders, hospital patients, nursing home residents and schoolchildren, according to a news release.

When the coronavirus pandemic is contained, the plan is for the lab to transition to processing tests for other viruses such as flu, HIV and HPV. Trudeau Institute researchers will also have the ability to use the lab to develop new tests for future outbreaks.

More capacity coming

The first piece of testing equipment installed at the lab was made by Rheonix Inc. of Ithaca. It’s a countertop unit.

Fundraising continues for the second phase of this project, which includes the purchase of more equipment that will increase the daily capacity of the lab. The Stoltz family, Joan and Bill Grabe, Essex County, Thomas McGowan IV, the Uihlein Foundation and the Lower Saranac Lake Shore Owners Association have already provided financial support for the lab.

Those interested in contributing to the project can contact the Adirondack Health Foundation at 518-897-2597.

A member of the Trudeau Institute Board of Trustees hinted that this effort was in the works back in July, on the heels of another collaboration between the two institutions that saw critical testing supplies — the liquid used to transport test samples to labs for processing — manufactured by Trudeau Institute and delivered to AMC in a time when those supplies were hard to find. At the time, board member Konrad Testwuide said test vials have to “go a long way to be tested and often run into bottlenecks if there’s an extreme outbreak somewhere else.”

For more than six weeks after this region saw its first confirmed COVID-19 case in March, area hospitals were restricted by state Department of Health guidelines to testing only the sickest patients and health care workers. The restrictions on testing meant not knowing the full scope of the virus here in a time when the state as a whole was leading the nation in the number of new COVID-19 cases each day. The rules prompted local county health departments to transition from reporting only test-confirmed cases to reporting suspected cases, too. At the same time, administrators from three local hospitals — AMC, Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone and Elizabethtown Community Hospital — said testing was also limited because of a shortage of testing materials such as vials, chemical reagents and swabs, and uncertainty over whether those supplies could be replenished quickly.

Trudeau Institute stepped in to help Adirondack Health in April. The facility started with sterilizing the hospital’s N-95 masks and other personal protective equipment, allowing them to be reused rather than thrown away in a time when those masks were in short supply nationwide. Then Trudeau Institute began manufacturing chemical reagents for the hospital, boosting its ability to conduct COVID-19 testing.

Getman described the collaboration at the time as a “game changer” for the hospital in its fight against COVID-19.

Trudeau Institute traces its history to 1884, when Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau established Saranac Lake as a tuberculosis cure center. As the sanatorium closed in the 1950s, a new version of Trudeau Institute was built upon studying infectious diseases of the lungs.

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