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As Florida struggles to roll out more testing for the coronavirus, some hospitals in Tampa Bay are helping to chip away at the problem.
More than 3,000 tests have been performed since the outbreak reached the state more than two weeks ago, but it hasn’t yet been enough to meet the overwhelming demand. Testing materials can be difficult to come by, bogging down state laboratories.
At AdventHealth Tampa, scientists and lab workers have been working quietly to ramp up their testing ability with the help of a new machine that arrived on March 7.
“As we started to see that this was going to be in our backyard, we started working with our vendor partners to find a diagnostic tool," said Jose Tirado, director of laboratory services at AdventHealth’s West Florida division. “There aren’t many vendors who are making anything yet because the virus is still so new.”
The machine was manufactured by GenMark Diagnostics, a medical equipment company headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif.
"We had to act fast to get one,” Tirado said.
The company had to get emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration to manufacture the tests that go with the machine, he said. After the tests arrived on March 13, the AdventHealth laboratory staff worked over the weekend to get the system ready for real patients on Monday. As of Thursday, they had run 14 tests.
AdventHealth, which is based in Orlando, also purchased additional machines for its hospitals in Orlando and Daytona Beach. The Orlando lab is among the busiest in the state testing for coronavirus. Last week, it was No. 4 on the list. By Thursday, it was No. 7 after private companies like Quest and LabCorp took on more cases.
As the second-leading Florida hospital testing cases behind Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, AdventHealth Orlando received a version of the GenMark machine that is larger than the one in Tampa, Tirado said.
“We determined the need by bed size. Orlando is a large hospital,” he said. The one in Tampa "isn’t the biggest. But three is better than zero.”
The machine is about the size of a large microwave, with a touchscreen face and three doors for loading samples. It sits on a countertop inside AdventHealth Tampa’s microbiology lab, at the end of a long corridor where hospital staff only pass while moving equipment to inpatient units.
It’s much different than the equipment in larger labs run by health departments and companies like Quest and LabCorp. Commercial labs often do “batch testing," in which they run many samples at once, sometimes 100 at a time, which can take eight-to-10 hours.
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The machine at AdventHealth Tampa can run just three samples at once, but it produces results within two hours. That translates to about 30 samples a day, which are tested “on demand” for the hospital’s more serious cases.
The hospital still sends samples from less critical cases to the state health department lab in Tampa.
“When hours, not days, can make a big difference in their outcome, we run the test here,” Tirado said.
“Because we are running tests 'on demand’ the process and methodology is different than the testing process at commercial labs,” said Leonor Velez-Climent, supervisor of AdventHealth Tampa’s microbiology laboratory. “It’s faster and more accurate, in my opinion. But technically our result is considered a presumptive positive until confirmed by the CDC.”
AdventHealth’s method takes less preparation than the batch method, too. Test kits are manufactured by GenMark, and the process is mostly automated, Tirado said. Test kits include a swab, where a health care worker takes a nasal and throat sample from a patient which is later run through the machine.
The kits also include one vial with all reagent material — the chemicals needed to produce a test result. They’re more streamlined than kits for the larger labs, where the reagent is packaged separately and needs to be combined in the lab. Some hospitals in South Florida have reported shortages of reagent needed to run coronavirus tests.
“For a hospital lab, which is much smaller than a commercial lab, this makes sense for us," Tirado said. The Tampa hospital had nearly 50 kits available as of Thursday.
While that’s moving the testing needle in the right direction, it’s only a fraction of the numbers needed to address the pandemic in Florida. As of midday Friday, 364 coronavirus tests had been conducted in the Tampa Bay counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando, according to the Florida health department’s online dashboard.
"We should be doing hundreds if not thousands of tests a day,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said this week, noting that testing is the only way to get an accurate look at how the virus is spreading across the region and state.
In the absence of that, “my suggestion is to take precautions as if you and everyone around you already has this virus," the mayor said. "This is the only way we can flatten the curve and possibly save some lives in our community.”
AdventHealth physicians follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol when determining if a patient is at risk of getting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. If the patient tests negative for flu and on a respiratory panel test, that doctor can order the COVID-19 test.
Tirado said the hospital is in touch with the health department regularly from that point on. If a test is positive, they confidentially fax the necessary medical information to the health department immediately.
Staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report
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