CAPITAL REGION — In an effort to speed-up testing of suspected cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, New York state has received federal approval to begin testing samples at Wadsworth Lab in Albany.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office released a statement Saturday afternoon announcing that New York state can now test for the virus itself, amid concerns that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has experienced a backlog in its ability to test suspected samples of the disease emanating out of China.
Cuomo said he received permission from Vice President Mike Pence for New York to proceed with its own tests. Pence has been appointed by President Trump to act as the point person dealing with the outbreak of the virus.
“When I spoke to Vice President Pence, I urged him to approve New York State’s Coronavirus test — we just received word that our test has been approved by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. New York State will begin testing immediately at Wadsworth Lab,” Cuomo said in his statement. “This approval will expedite wait time and improve New York’s ability to more effectively manage the Coronavirus situation as it unfolds.”
Cuomo’s statement came a few hours after the first confirmed U.S. death from the COVID-19 virus in Washington State. The CDC in a news release said the person who died was a man in his 50s, one of three people who have tested presumptive-positive from the virus. The other two are a patient and health care worker from a long term care facility. Additional residents and employees at the long term care facility are ill with symptoms of a respiratory illness and pneumonia of unknown origin, but have not yet been tested for COVID-19.
“While there is an ongoing investigation, the source of these infections is currently unknown. Circumstances suggest person-to-person spread in the community, including in the LTCF,” states a news release on the CDC.gov website.
Until Cuomo’s announcement Saturday, the CDC had directed all suspected cases of COVID-19 to be sent to its lab system. This was due to a malfunction that had been detected in the test kits that had previously been distributed to state and local labs.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that modifications to the malfunctioning test kits may allow them to soon be used at the 40 state and local labs that have them.
As of Saturday night the CDC was reporting 459 people have been tested for COVID-19, which is only an increase of 14 tests since Thursday night when the CDC was reporting 445 people tested.
This contrasts sharply with South Korea, which has reported testing 66,000 people, and is testing roughly 10,000 new cases per day.
A press official for Cuomo’s office said New York state has sent 27 samples of suspected cases of COVID-19 to the CDC, all of which have come back negative for the illness, but have typically taken several days for results. The spokesman said New York state’s FDA approved COVID-19 test in Albany will hopefully yield much faster results.
“Wadsworth can conduct 100s of tests per day,” said the Cuomo administration official. “When you send something to the CDC it takes a few days for it to come back, versus test-it-right-here, in New York, and we can potentially find out same-day, or at least as quickly as things can be gotten to Wadsworth.”
Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko Saturday said the CDC directive for how to handle suspected cases of COVID-19 required the samples to be sent first to Wadsworth anyway, but she is glad the additional step of sending them from Wadsworth to another CDC lab has been eliminated.
“I will say I am glad we have the capacity to speed up the lapse in time for samples that would have to go to CDC,” she said. “This is positive progress for New York state.”
Boerenko has conducted an aggressive public education effort since the virus outbreak in the U.S. was announced. On Thursday she conducted a public meeting of emergency response officials in her county, including representatives from her county’s sheriff’s department, its police agencies, St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam, the Greater Amsterdam Volunteer Ambulance Corps., as well as Montgomery County Supreme Court Judge Rebecca Slezak. The candid exchange between the officials was broadcast to the county’s Facebook page and currently has over 5,000 views.
Boerenko assured all of the officials that no suspected cases of COVID-19 have yet been detected in her county. She reviewed all of the directives from the CDC about the illness, including its flu-like symptoms and common sense precautionary measures like increased cleanliness, particularly for people in high-risk categories like the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions.
During the meeting, St. Mary’s Hospital officials indicated they have been screening all new patients for signs of the disease or a history of traveling to countries where the outbreak has occurred. GAVAC indicated its ambulance employees are doing the same.
Boerenko also reviewed with Slezak the procedures for quarantining individuals against their will by court order. She said she believes clear and honest is one of the keys the local response to COVID-19 or any communicable illness.
“I try really hard to make sure the community has accurate information. As the public health director, I think that is our main role so that residents are not panicking,” she said. “Education and awareness is one of our core functions in public health.”
Erin Roberts, Schenectady County Director of Public Communications, released information about Schenectady County’s preparations for COVID-19 Thursday and a written statement from Lisa Ayres, Schenectady County Director of Public Health, on Friday.
Roberts said there are currently no known cases of COVID-19 in Schenectady County. She said the county ordered additional supplies in preparation for the possible spread of the disease. She said Schenectady is participating in daily conference calls with the state Dept. of Health and conducting educational sessions with local community partners and schools.
“The county always has a plan in place for pandemic situations,” Ayres said in her statement. “Keeping in constant contact with the state and local providers has helped us fine-tune that plan for this specific virus, where our main focus is mitigating community transmission.”
It is not yet known how easily the virus is spread. The CDC as of Saturday was reporting three instances of “person to person” spread, cases where the individuals had not traveled to a country with the virus, including the fatality in Washington State.
In Saratoga County, a team involving the county Office of Emergency Management, public health nurses, department of social services, sheriff’s office, county administrator and county attorney are working on plans.
“We are pre-planning so in case there is a need for a coordinated response we will be prepared for it,” said county Emergency Management Director Carl Zeilman. “We’re making sure our plans are strong, we are working with other surrounding counties. It is better to be ahead of it rather than be reactive.”
While he acknowledged there’s a lot of travel between Saratoga County and China because of GlobalFoundries and other high-tech industries in the county, he noted that so far, no one has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
In Fulton County, Public Health Director Laurel Headwell issued a written statement Friday in response to questions from the Daily Gazette. She said the Fulton County Emergency Management Office is coordinating a meeting similar to the one Boerenko conducted in Montgomery County on Thursday.
Headwell said she has concerns about the elderly population in Fulton County possibly being at risk if the virus spreads to that area, but she believes that is improbable.
“Fulton County residents remain at a low risk of contracting the disease COVID-19,” she said. “Currently Fulton County Public Health is diligently meeting with community partners to mitigate the emergence of the disease in our community. We are also developing and promoting campaigns for educating the public regarding preventing the spread of disease.”
Headwell added the CDC does not recommend people wear face masks to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
“Face masks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others,” she said. “The use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings at home or in a healthcare facility.”
Headwell’s concerns about face masks coincide with retailers like Palmer Pharmacy in Johnstown and many drug retailers in the Capital Region, and major online retailers, reporting they are sold-out of face masks since the COVID-19 virus spread to the U.S.
Staff writer Steven Williams contributed to this article.
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