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URMC lab begins testing some people with no symptoms of COVID-19

Max Schulte
Dr. Dwight Hardy, the director of clinical microbiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, holds part of a test kit for COVID-19 at a March press conference.

The University of Rochester Medical Center’s pathology lab has begun processing coronavirus tests for nursing home residents who have no symptoms of COVID-19.

Previously, a limited supply of testing materials had restricted local labs almost exclusively to testing people with symptoms of the disease.

The University of Rochester's pathology laboratory has begun running coronavirus tests on samples from people who don't have any symptoms.
Credit University of Rochester Medical Center
University of Rochester Medical Center
The University of Rochester's pathology laboratory has begun running coronavirus tests on samples from people who don't have any symptoms.

More recently, as the labs move toward automated testing systems, their capacity has slowly increased. Last week, URMC said it had begun running tests for people who were hospitalized for surgery, regardless of whether they had COVID-19 symptoms.

Now, the lab said, it can process 400 to 500 samples a day. That leaves room for samples collected from people with respiratory symptoms, as well as people admitted for surgery and some nursing home residents who have no symptoms.

Data from the state health department show that 30% of Monroe County’s COVID-19 deaths are nursing home residents, but with more than 5,000 people living in nursing homes in the county, a spokesperson for URMC said the lab would be overwhelmed if every home submitted samples from every resident.

Hospital administrators said a continuing shortage of nasal swabs would probably prevent the homes from even being able to gather that many specimens.

It was not immediately clear which nursing home residents were tested.

Still, the ability to test some nursing home residents who don’t have symptoms could paint a clearer picture of what has so far been extremely murky: how extensively the coronavirus is spreading among what Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza called “perhaps the highest-risk population that you can imagine.”

When residents of a nursing home in Steuben County started dying of COVID-19 last week, officials there ordered facility-wide testing, turning up several positive results.

At a nursing home in Washington state last month, an administrator got test results for every resident even though only two were showing symptoms. Dozens came back positive.

The Monroe County public health department has not yet identified any local clusters, but Mendoza has said nursing home staff could be unknowingly spreading the disease.

Because of the potential for people to transfer the virus before they start showing symptoms, Mendoza said, “it’s reasonable to begin screening asymptomatic individuals, especially if in high-risk settings.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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