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Duke working to meet demand for coronavirus testing

Posted March 17, 2020 5:22 p.m. EDT
Updated March 25, 2020 1:16 p.m. EDT

— State health officials said Tuesday that about 1,100 tests for coronavirus have been completed in North Carolina so far, and thousands of samples are awaiting testing at a state lab and private labs.

Yet, many people who meet the guidelines for testing are struggling to have one done.

Dr. Christopher Polage, director of the Duke Health Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, said his team all but turned flips to patch together protocols, processes and supplies to test coronavirus cases in house, which he said is a heavy lift for an emerging disease.

"This [outbreak] is unlike anyone has ever seen before," Polage said. "Laboratories, I would say, are under tremendous pressure right now."

Duke has sent hundreds of test samples to outside labs in recent days but plans to add in-house testing next week, he said. The hospital system is also testing drive-up options to collect samples from patients.

"Individual health systems are scrambling to get test supplies, collection kits, swabs – all of the above – and we're all competing for the same limited resources," he said.

Those supply chain challenges create a triage system for people who want to get tested.

"This is really not about trying to turn people away. This is about trying to care for the people who are most ill," Polage said.

Lack of planning contributed to the strain on the system now seen across the U.S., he said.

"I think, despite watching this epidemic overseas, we perhaps had some wishful thinking," he said.

While countries like South Korea are testing some 20,000 people a day, dwarfing U.S. totals, Polage said he thinks the U.S. has been careful to have accurate tests before widely distributing them.

"We have historically prioritized safety above speed," he said.

Polage couldn't provide an estimate of how many tests his lab would be able to handle each day, but the staff is considering putting a lower priority on other lab tests during the crisis.

"This has many layers, and we need to perform this test on hundreds of patients a day – 24 hours a day, every day of the week – and we need to get it right," he said.

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