After months of complaints about delays in testing, New York City officials on Thursday are ready to announce that they have opened a lab in Manhattan that will significantly reduce waiting times as the city prepares for its most ambitious period of reopening with public school classes and indoor dining scheduled to begin this month.
Instead of relying on the big lab companies – which have been flooded with demand from across the country as the virus continues to spread, leading to backlogs – the new facility prioritizes New York City residents, meaning treatment time within 24 -48 hours, officials said.
“It will give us more capacity just in terms of a large number,” said Dr. Jay Varma, counselor at City Hall, who plays a leading role in the city’s coronavirus response. “It will also give us control because this is a lab that is truly dedicated to New York City.”
New York City has one of the most ambitious coronavirus testing programs in the country, transmitting more than 200,000 people a week, more than 2 percent of all city residents. The new lab, which began processing tests this week, was eventually to help expand it significantly.
The lab on the 12th floor of a building on First Avenue and East 29th Street is run by Opentrons, a small robot company. But New York City has played a significant role in setting up the lab, city officials said. For now, the city and its public hospital system are the laboratory’s only customer.
First, the new lab, called the Pandemic Response Lab, will handle just a few thousand tests a day, mostly from samples collected at test sites operated by the city’s public hospital system, City Hall and Opentrons officials said.
But the expectation is that the lab will eventually be able to test more than 40,000 samples a day, possibly including some from public school students and teachers, depending on need.
By Wednesday morning, the lab had returned results on the first 712 samples it was sent and is currently able to handle about 3,000 samples a day, a number that is expected to rise dramatically over the next week, a spokesman for the laboratory. .
Public health officials are hopeful that testing – for the first time since coronavirus arrived in New York City – will no longer be a scarce resource.
The new laboratory is the last chapter in the city’s long-term efforts to solve a number of problems that plague the test effort. The problems go back to February and March, when a series of mistakes and disastrous decisions by the federal government meant that few people were eligible for a test – even when they showed clear Covid-19 symptoms – when the virus began circulating across New York City and its suburbs.
First, the federal government had a monopoly over testing, and the city struggled to develop the ability to test on its own. Early on, efforts were hampered by a lack of test kits, chemical reagents and even the cotton swabs used to collect samples.
In the ensuing months, the largest national laboratories dramatically increased their testing capacity, and New York City began to rely on them to handle most local tests. But some of these labs, like Quest Diagnostics, were overwhelmed this summer amid worsening outbreaks elsewhere in the country.
It contributed to waiting times as long as 2 to 3 weeks for test results in New York. For public health officials, it was clear that New York City needed more test infrastructure that it could control – or at least trust.
“We are entering the range of test capacity that we feel is critical, ”said Dr. Warm.
The extra capacity could come in handy in the midst of the impending push for students and teachers to be tested as classroom teaching resumes for hundreds of thousands in the public school system. And as the flu season begins and the common cold begins to circulate in greater numbers, the demand for testing may increase as New Yorkers struggle with symptoms that may or may not mean Covid-19.
“We knew we really needed our test capacity to be at its peak in the fall,” said Dr. Warm.
Opentrons, the robotics company that will lead the laboratory, specializes in the automation of research laboratories. Jonathan Brennan-Badal, the company’s CEO, said three robotic arms will move trays, each containing approx. 380 samples, between different test stations.
The laboratory expects to start collecting samples, a method in which a number of samples are grouped and tested as one.
James Patchett, president of the city’s economic development company, expressed hope that the pooling lab would eventually be able to test 40,000 to 60,000 samples a day.
The push towards the laboratory goes back to early April at the height of the eruption, when City Hall realized it was facing a shortage of critical supplies.
Month after month, the city’s test program remained a weak link in its ability to respond to coronavirus.
The city itself has had limited capacity to process tests. There was the health department’s own public health laboratory as well as equipment for rapid testing at various city-run sexual health clinics and public hospitals. In all, the city could handle about 10,000 tests a day alone, said Jeff Thamkittikasem, director of the mayor’s office for operations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has spoken about the city’s ambition to test 50,000 New Yorkers a day by the end of the summer.
For several months, City Hall and the city’s Economic Development Agency have been talking to labs and start-ups about building more laboratory capacity for testing in New York City.
The new laboratory will rely in part on a process developed by genetic researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center, said Brennan-Badal, CEO of Opentrons. In addition to allowing for large-scale testing, the process also consumes relatively fewer reagents and other supplies that have been scarce at various points in the pandemic, he said.
The city pays Opentron’s $ 28 for each test, which Brennan-Badal said was less than a third of what some other labs charged.
Sir. Thamkittikasem, the mayor’s operating assistant, said the plan was for the laboratory to eventually test samples for the flu as well.