Bethlehem Press

Monday, March 30, 2020

Virus testing increasing in area

Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Chris Reber in Local News

With one person each in Lehigh and Northampton counties testing positive for COVID-19, doctors and health officials in the area anticipate an increase in the number of people who will want to be tested for the illness.

The state’s lab is up and ready to process tests within a few hours, and more testing labs are joining the effort daily, according to officials.

But at this time the state is primarily testing people with high risk factors, like those who have been in contact with an infected person, or traveled to a place where the disease is more prevalent.

Infectious disease experts said that until there is more evidence that the disease is spreading inside the state, focusing testing on people with higher risk is the right move.

“Since we have not had any significant community spread, in fact we really haven’t had any community spread in our area, testing should be limited by and large to people who had certain risk exposure factors – if they travel to areas with a higher incidence of this going on,” said St. Luke’s infectious disease expert Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, senior vice president of medical and academic affairs.

He said the state is more likely to prioritize someone who traveled to areas like New Rochelle, New York, Washington state, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

State health officials and doctors are encouraging people who feel they may have symptoms of the virus to call their primary care doctor and the state health department before trying to visit a healthcare facility. The health department can be reached at 1-877-PA-Health (724-3258).

If it’s determined that a person should be tested, calling in advance allows the facility to take precautions before they arrive.

Precautions range from requiring the patient to wear a mask, up through having the healthcare workers wear personal protective equipment.

Jahre said a doctor’s office can determine over the phone whether there is a need for a test, and if there is a need for more immediate treatment.

The current test involves a swab of the throat.

Samples are being processed at several sites.

The state’s lab, located in Exton, Chester County, is currently equipped to process samples within a few hours.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a press conference on Thursday that the state is prioritizing tests for people who have contacted an infected person, or traveled to areas where the disease is more widespread.

“There is a consultation with a public health professional at either our lab or the (local health department) to determine whether it should be tested at a state lab.

Jahre said the state lab will only accept a sample from a health care facility if they deem that the patient meets certain risk factors.

The state is capable of processing a test in a matter of hours.

At Thursday’s press conference, health department officials said that they processed more than 100 samples Thursday morning alone. They said they are doing dozens of consults with residents every hour.

Commercial labs and universities are also processing the test, but it can take up to a few days, health department officials said.

Levine said doctors do not need to consult with the state before sending a sample to a commercial lab.

LabCorp, whose locations include Brodheadsville and Bethlehem, has a message on its website which says that it will only process specimens which are collected by a healthcare provider.

“Individuals seeking testing for COVID-19 should not come to or be sent to a LabCorp location,”

While the disease has been fatal, the majority of cases are much less serious, according to experts. About 80 percent of cases will be mild or insignificant, Jahre said. The people most at risk of complications, including death, are the elderly and people with existing serious medical conditions.

“It is primarily in the elderly, specifically the over-80 age group, and those who have additional significant medical conditions such as lung conditions, heart conditions, diabetes.”

Jahre said that based on the way the virus has spread up to this point, he anticipates that there will be additional cases in our area. There are a large number of people who travel for work to areas which are experiencing more widespread instances of the virus.

“What you’re trying to do there is make sure it doesn’t get excessive spread in the community, particularly to those that are the most vulnerable,” he said.

The testing criteria may change as the situation evolves. Jahre said if the illness becomes more widespread in Pennsylvania, the number of tests will increase as well.