Essex County equipped for rapid coronavirus testing, should another outbreak hit

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FILE – In this Oct. 23, 2020, file photo, University of Washington research coordinator Rhoshni Prabhu holds up a swab after testing a passenger at a free COVID testing site in Seattle. Deaths per day from the coronavirus in the U.S. are on the rise again, just as health experts had feared, and cases are climbing in nearly every single state. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The Essex County Health Department has had a stressful few months, fighting through a two-month COVID-19 outbreak at the Essex Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing to a smaller one at the Lee House Apartments in Elizabethtown. In that time, they’ve gone from under 100 coronavirus cases to 242 as of Monday.

With numbers running low and slow through the first several months of the pandemic, the county was caught off-guard in terms of testing speed when the surge at the Essex Center began. This week, they’ve received new equipment that will help them ensure a quicker response, and quicker results, should another crop of cases break out in fast numbers.

Essex County said Monday that they were getting equipped with three molecular test machines, as well as 800 antigen cards. Both are methods of rapid testing for the county, the lack of which had pushed the Essex Center to find their own way to faster testing and results previously.

“We know that accessing rapid COVID-19 tests in Essex County has been challenging,” said Linda Beers, Essex County Director of Public Health. “We’re excited to work with our health care providers to improve the availability of rapid testing, which will help us target specific populations that have the most need.”

The tech comes courtesy of work with Hudson Headwaters Health Network, University of Vermont Health Network, Elizabethtown Community Hospital and the Adirondack Medical Center.

The molecular test machines alone have enough materials to process over 1,000 tests. The antigen cards add to that by being able to process tests without requiring test machines.

The FDA approved use of the antigen cards in August, and can identify peak cases in around 15 minutes.

“We’re now able to provide a plan to the state,” wrote county Public Information Officer Andrea Whitmarsh, “and we’re now in the process of ironing out the details with our partners and getting staff trained to use these materials.”

New York’s department of health requires plans for how supplies like these will be used in counties and municipalities.

Staff using rapid testing machines will be trained to perform sample collection, operate machines and report results.

In September, a three-person federal strike team visited the center to give advice on handling the virus and training on how to use some machinery used in testing.

Where the cases are cropping up

The outbreak at Essex Center alone was responsible for 110 coronavirus cases, between residents, staff and a few contacts with staff. The first case was identified posthumously, over two weeks after testing took place.

That meant that more cases were already spreading at the center; and test results continued moving at that same pace.

Last month, Centers Health Care declared the Essex Center “coronavirus-free,” and credited that development in large part to a decision to internalize coronavirus testing in-house. In a phone interview last month, Jeff Jacomowitz with Centers said the company was cautiously optimistic going forward.

The case total at the county sat at 242 as of Monday. As in other counties, schools haven’t been immune. A student at Moriah Central School District tested positive for coronavirus on Oct. 25. Crown Point Central School also reported a case.

A smaller outbreak happened last month at the Lee House Apartments in Elizabethtown. 12 people were linked to that outbreak, including both residents and outside individuals linked to residents.

On Monday, a new case was reported at another nursing home, Elderwood Uihlein Lake Placid Nursing Home.

School questions

After the case at Moriah Central School District, the county public health department posted a Q&A on their Facebook page.

They answered questions involving what made masks and social distancing for students nessecary if positive cases and those around them would be quarantined anyway. The county said that the quick isolation and separation of exposed individuals was made easier when those individuals were around fewer people.

Another question was why students who test positive need to be under a county quarantine order if they are already barred from attending school. The county clarified that their quarantines were there to stop the virus from spreading outside of the school or work environment where a case may have been reported from.

The Q&A uses the school cases at Moriah and Crown Point as examples of how safety procedures work in effect, pointing out how Crown Point was kept to only one case by keeping a close eye on potential community contacts and ensuring those contacts were limited.

The county also recently shared a job opening from the state of New York seeking an Essex County school specialist, whose job would be to manage communications with school districts, contacts and Essex County when investigating school cases.

Andrea Whitmarsh with the public health department said in a position Monday that the position had been filled.

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