State health officials “anxious” for hospitals, commercial labs to do onsite COVID-19 testing

Children's Wisconsin, Froedtert among first hospitals to offer onsite testing

Children's Wisconsin
Children's Wisconsin

Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 02:56 pm

As state health officials work to increase testing capacity at public health labs, Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee Andrea Palm said she is “anxious” for more hospitals and commercial labs to conduct testing for COVID-19 throughout the state.

Children’s Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories at Froedtert Hospital are among the first hospitals in the state to offer on-site testing services, while other health systems are “in various stages of the process” to be able to test for the virus in their own facilities, rather than sending samples to one of the two public health labs in the state, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases for DHS.

Currently, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene – the state’s public health lab in Madison – has ramped up its operations to test as many as 400 specimens a day, seven days a week, Westergaard said. The turnaround time for lab results is about one to two days, he said. Meanwhile, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett last week said he would like to see the city’s public health lab grow its capacity from about 30 cases per day to 300-500 per day.

“We are very anxious for additional hospitals around the state of Wisconsin and other private labs to come online and support the increased capacity that we need here in the state of Wisconsin and that all others need around the country,” Palm said.

One barrier to expanding testing capacity is simple test kits – like those used for influenza or strep throat – have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for COVID-19, so testing has been limited to certified “high complexity” labs.

“But we’re optimistic that because of the public health emergency, those processes are being expedited and within the coming months those things will be available,” Westergaard said of the test kits.

“Eventually testing for COVID-19 will become as rapid and commonplace as testing for influenza,” he added.

Palm said testing shortages are a “nationwide problem” due to the slow roll out of test kits and supply chain issues.

President Donald Trump last Friday announced a “new partnership with the private sector to vastly increase and accelerate” testing capacity for the virus. In some communities across the country, that has looked like offering drive-thru testing in the parking lots of big box stores.

As of Monday afternoon, Wisconsin has 46 active COVID-19 cases, and one individual who tested positive that has since recovered. Of those cases, 13 are in Milwaukee County, 11 are in Fond du Lac County and 10 are in Dane County. Waukesha, Sheboygan and Winnebago counties each have three cases, while Outagamie, Pierce, Racine and Wood counties each have a single case. So far, 504 tests have returned negative for the virus.

The growth in cases over the weekend was not surprising as testing capacity ramps up. Westergaard said the new cases indicate that “community spread” is now occurring in Wisconsin, meaning the new cases didn’t originate from someone traveling to another country or coming into contact with someone who returned from another country.

Of the active cases, the conditions range from individuals who have “minimal to no symptoms” and are recovering at home, to some who are hospitalized and “critically ill,” Westergaard said. He did not provide specifics regarding how many are hospitalized at this point.

However, Westergaard expressed confidence in hospitals’ ability to respond to more serious cases.

“The health care team – the nurses and doctors and other staff in hospitals –  are remarkably well prepared to treat patients with COVID-19,” he said. “Even patients with severe critical illness who need ICU-level care can be expected to recover with the support and care that’s delivered in our hospitals.”

A spokesperson with Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin on Monday said the health system has a process in place to screen, test, isolate and care for individuals with COVID-19.

“Along with other health care providers, we are carefully monitoring information and following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization. We, in conjunction with our peer health care providers in the community, have experience in managing serious infectious diseases and pandemics and are trained and prepared,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work and collaborate with national, regional and local health care organizations to help manage the health care needs of our patients, staff and community.”

However, state health officials warned that health systems could be overwhelmed if the number of cases spikes.

“We have a finite number of ICU beds and ventilators,” Westergaard said. “In a pandemic situation the real risk is that the number of critically ill patients will grow too large too quickly and we may not have enough resources to save everyone who needs critical care.”

Measures to curtail the spread of the virus – including so-called “social distancing” measures and Gov. Tony Evers’ ban on gatherings of 50 or more – are necessary to prevent that scenario, he said.

Meanwhile, health systems have implemented policies to stem the spread of the virus. Beginning Monday, Advocate Aurora Health has largely banned visitors, with a few exceptions, in any inpatient areas. Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin network hospitals are limiting visits to one visitor per patient at one time. Ascension Wisconsin is limiting visits to two visitors per patient at one time at it facilities.

Health providers are urging people who have COVID-19 symptoms or concerns to call their provider before visiting a health care facility.

Froedtert & MCW also announced Monday that, beginning Tuesday, it will defer elective surgeries and procedures if the delay does not put a patient at risk.

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.