A COVID-19 Test That Gets Results In Minutes Rolls Out Across D.C. Region New tests can deliver results within 15 minutes, but not every hospital has them, and testing supplies are still limited.
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NPR logo A COVID-19 Test That Gets Results In Minutes Rolls Out Across D.C. Region

A COVID-19 Test That Gets Results In Minutes Rolls Out Across D.C. Region

A lab technician dips a sample into the Abbott Laboratories ID Now testing machine at the Detroit Health Center in Detroit. Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories says its cartridge-based test, approved last month, delivers results within minutes. In some parts of the D.C. region, it's helping drive faster testing. Carlos Osorio/AP Photo hide caption

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Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

Rapid testing for the coronavirus is trickling into the D.C. region as public health departments and some hospitals and clinics get machines that issue results in minutes. Still, testing supplies and machinery are limited, leaving lab tests that take days to produce results a consistent feature of a patchwork medical landscape.

The game changer in the region is the Abbott ID NOW test, which can return positive results in five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes. The Maryland Department of Health said Tuesday it had obtained machines and "a limited number of cartridges." Spokesman Charles Gischlar said in an email to WAMU that the state labs were verifying the technology.

In Washington, Dr. Jenifer Smith, the director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, thanked the federal government on Monday for providing 16 Abbott machines and 1,000 test kits. She touted the Abbott system for its convenient, toaster-like size, saying "they can be put into a clinic, they don't require a lot of bench space."

Smith said D.C. also obtained "hundreds of tests" for use in the Cepheid GeneXpert system developed by Danaher, a District-based medical conglomerate. That test gives results in 45 minutes.

The new technologies should soon expand the city's public health laboratory's capacity beyond 500 tests a day. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said far more testing would be key to ending the city's stay-home restrictions.

"I do think that is where we need the federal government to step in, in a much much bigger degree," Bowser told NBC4 Tuesday. "We need that type of technology with a lot of media, a lot of sampling kits, to be readily available all across the District."

The Virginia Department of Health did not reply to WAMU questions about rapid testing by the time of publication.

Beyond public health departments, rapid testing also appeared at hospitals and clinics in Virginia and Maryland. The Virginia Hospital Center announced Friday it would use the Abbott ID NOW system at the site it runs with Arlington County. Medstar said it would begin using Abbott machines Tuesday in its 14 urgent care locations and three testing tents across D.C. and Baltimore. Inova, which runs five hospitals in Northern Virginia, said it, too, obtained Abbott machines.

Even where rapid testing is available, it is hobbled by sparse supplies. Tracy Connell, a spokeswoman for Inova hospitals, wrote in an email to WAMU, "the kits and reagents for testing are still on allocation so we are limited in how many tests we can run on those machines per week."

Not every hospital and health network has rapid testingx — for example, Children's National Hospital in Washington said it did not have the Abbott system.

Still, there are encouraging signs that in general, testing of all kinds is getting faster and more accessible.

A spokeswoman for Sentara, which runs a hospital in Woodbridge, Va., said the health network had not received the Abbott ID NOW machines but developed an in-house laboratory to bypass long delays at commercial centers. Kaiser Permanente relies on Quest Diagnostics, a private lab that until recently had a days-long backlog; now, it has cleared the jam, said spokeswoman Kim Gorode, and can process high-priority tests in a day, and other tests within two days.

Abbott's testing machines are in the national spotlight and on the minds of the region's leaders. Asked on ABC's The Week about the tests, FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said, "there's certainly pressure on the supply chain in terms of getting supplies."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told reporters his health department worked with hospitals to develop in-house testing with a turnaround time "as short as 10 hours," but he indicated that faster tests would be critical to re-opening the state's economy.

"We're not where we need to be as of today, but each day that gets better," Northam said. "To be able to have a turnaround time of 15 to 30 minutes, that's really where we need to be, and we'll need that information as we make these decisions to ease the restrictions."

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