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Monroe County running low on coronavirus tests as schools prepare to reopen

Max Schulte
Dr. Dwight Hardy holds a vial of the type used to collect samples for coronavirus testing in this photo from a March news conference at the University of Rochester Medical Center's pathology laboratory.

Monroe County needs more coronavirus testing capacity to prepare for the start of the school year, county public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said on Friday.

Students who have any symptoms of COVID-19 either need a positive coronavirus test to start isolation until they're no longer contagious, or a negative test and a note from a health care provider after their symptoms resolve, to go back to school, according to the health department's instructions.

Mendoza said the number of tests required to meet those needs will likely exceed the current capacity of diagnostic laboratories in the county.

"Based on our estimates, we're going to need to have about 1,000 additional tests per day," he said.

“We do have somewhat of a deadline. We want to try to increase capacity for testing by the time schools open."

Most coronavirus tests in Monroe County are performed at laboratories at Rochester Regional Health and the University of Rochester Medical Center, Mendoza said. 

Spokespeople for those health care systems said they are working on plans to increase the number of tests they can run, but they’re not yet ready to share those plans publicly.

Limited testing supplies and an uncoordinated testing system have resulted in weeks-long waits for test results for some people across the country.

Most test results in New York are returned within days, the state health department says, but supply bottlenecks still affect local laboratories.

“We are doing all we can to meet the community’s COVID testing needs, and we are working with our government partners as needed to help us obtain the necessary reagents and supplies,” said URMC spokesperson Lydia Fernandez.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
Monroe County will likely need to add about 1,000 novel coronavirus tests per day beyond its current capacity as the school year begins, said public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza, speaking to reporters on a video call from his office in Rochester on Friday.

The number of tests that local health care systems can run has increased significantly since early March, when administrators feared an outbreak of the virus would begin before they could run any tests. By April, the labs had enough supplies to test some people with no symptoms of the disease.

But requiring students with any symptoms to receive a negative test result before returning to school will strain those supplies again, Mendoza said.

Fewer than 2% of coronavirus tests administered have been coming back positive in Monroe County for most of the last two weeks, health department figures show.

Mendoza said reopening schools “is not risk-free,” but the low prevalence of COVID-19 in the county means it’s not likely to lead to uncontrolled spread of the disease.

On balance, he said, he believes opening schools is better than keeping them shuttered.

“I’m eager to open schools safely, because there are consequences to keeping schools closed,” said Mendoza. “The mental health impacts, the social-emotional impacts – those things are critical for our kids.

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