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Tampa Bay could have coronavirus tests that share results in minutes by mid-April

Some hospitals, like AdventHealth Tampa and Tampa General Hospital, already have a limited capacity to return tests within an hour or two.

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Tampa Bay may have access within a couple of weeks to new tests that can tell a patient within minutes or an hour whether they’ve contracted COVID-19.

That would be a vast improvement over many of the tests available here now, with some patients reporting waiting 12 days or longer to learn whether they have the fast-spreading coronavirus.

BayCare Health System’s Chief Medical Officer Nishant Anand told the Tampa Bay Times the healthcare provider is in conversations with two companies behind these rapid tests.

Diagnostics company Cepheid manufactured a test that can detect the virus within an hour. Abbott Laboratories says its test can deliver positive results in five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes.

Both tests were recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are receiving wide interest from governments and healthcare providers across the country who are facing a shortage of test kits and a rising demand.

Anand said BayCare, which has already placed an order with Abbott, is hopeful to have some of the tests on hand by mid-April.

“Ideally, we’d like something sooner,” Anand said. “As the number of tests and types of tests increase proportionally, it’s going to increase the chance that we can get something deployed here pretty quickly.”

Other providers, like AdventHealth and Tampa General Hospital, recently began performing tests in their own hospital laboratories that produce results within an hour or two. But the capacity of those is limited.

The machine at AdventHealth Tampa can run just three tests 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 most serious cases.

Related: AdventHealth pitches in on coronavirus testing as Florida strains to keep up

The hospital is hoping to expand its in-house testing abilities throughout its West Florida Division, spokeswoman Ashley Jeffery said. The hospital is also “aggressively pursuing” all testing options, including rapid tests that are emerging on the market.

“We are working ... to provide patients with same-day results with the goal of lessening the burden on our public health partners and alleviating wait times for patients,” Jeffery said in an email.

Meanwhile, on March 26, Tampa General Hospital started performing a limited number of rapid COVID-19 tests in its lab that produce results within an hour, said Angela Lauster, director of laboratory services. The hospital can conduct up to 36 of these fast tests per day, and hopes to expand the number soon.

“Being able to give a quick result allows us to move the patients through the hospital more quickly, and that is ultimately better for everyone,” Lauster said in a statement.

HCA’s West Florida Division is also looking at a number of options, including rapid tests, to improve turnaround times and hopes to offer the service soon, said spokeswoman Debra McKell.

But even if local healthcare providers do get access to the new tests or ramp up their existing services, that doesn’t mean they’ll be available to most people.

Instead, Anand suspects BayCare will reserve those high-demand tests for those in most immediate need, such as patients who are already at the hospital with severe symptoms or healthcare workers who might have been exposed.

“If you have someone who’s extremely sick in the ICU, that’s someone for whom a five-minute test would be extremely important,” Anand said. “If someone’s at home, it might be okay to wait the seven days or five days to get those results. You have to apply that risk assessment to it.”

The tests will be particularly helpful for determining whether a doctor, nurse or other healthcare worker has contracted the virus. If the test comes back negative, that person can return to work. Quick responses will hopefully prevent a shortage of workers during this critical time, Anand said.

The abbreviated turn-around time will also help doctors assess what type of treatment to give people who are already hospitalized and dealing with severe symptoms or have a complicated medical history, like someone undergoing chemotherapy.

BayCare remains in talks with private laboratories Quest Diagnostics and Labcorps who have been analyzing test kits from drive-thru sites in Tampa Bay. Anand said those labs were initially overwhelmed and seeing far longer turnaround times than expected, but are now seeing that wait time decrease.

Related: Waiting on test results? It's taking 8 days or more to process coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay

“Their turn-around times, I was hearing, were as high as in the teens, but they are now starting to go back down to five or six days,” Anand said. “That’s great news for folks who can stay at home but need a diagnosis for one reason or another and can visit a drive-thru test site.”

Anand said increasing access to testing of any kind, whether at a drive-thru or in a hospital, is important for encouraging people to self-quarantine, for tracing how the virus is spreading, and for understanding the need in each community for access to resources and supplies like ventilators.

“Testing also helps enhance social distancing, which is one of the most important things as we’re battling the COVID crisis,” Anand said. “If people are aware they’ve got it and are going to stay away from other individuals, that’s where we’re going to be successful.”

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