Newly approved COVID-19 test could ‘dramatically’ ramp up testing at Lifespan

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A new test for COVID-19 recently approved by the FDA means Lifespan hospitals could turn out up to 300 samples a day, up from just 50 now, according to CEO Dr. Tim Babineau.

Babineau said the newly approved novel coronavirus test, made by biotech company Cepheid, would give patients results in just 45 minutes to say if they have the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We have the machines here,” Babineau told Target 12 on Wednesday. “We need the cartridges — we need the things to put the samples in to put in the machines.” Those machines are at Rhode Island, Miriam and Newport hospitals.

He said he has been in touch with the CEO of Cepheid and hopes Lifespan “will be getting a big shipment of those cartridges in the next day or two.”

“If that is the case we should be able to ramp up our testing dramatically,” he added.

Like other health care professionals, Babineau expressed frustration about the number of tests it has been possible to conduct because supplies have been hard to come by.

“We should be able to test a couple hundred people a day,” Babineau said. “We’ve only been able to test 40 to 50 people a day.”

Also on Wednesday, Babineau said Lifespan opened a tent facility next to their emergency department to triage patients who are showing symptoms of the highly contagious virus.

For now, Lifespan hospitals are actually seeing a downturn in the number of patients, running about 40% below normal capacity. But Babineau said hospital leaders have been preparing for a surge of COVID-19 patients who need critical care.

He said Lifespan has 200 ventilators and 60 intensive care unit beds across its hospital system.

“We have explored technology that if we had to, we might be able to put two patients on one ventilator,” Babineau said. “We haven’t done it, but theoretically we could ventilate 400 people.” 

“At that point my opinion is it doesn’t become an equipment issue, it becomes a staffing issue,” he said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lifespan had two patients suffering from COVID-19 on a ventilator. R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott separately disclosed that 16 people were currently hospitalized with the disease statewide.

Medical personnel are still being required to wear the so-called “N95” medical masks — which have been in short supply – for longer than usual. Babineau said Lifespan has about a two-week supply left, depending on the organization’s “burn rate.”

“We are in unchartered waters and we are using our best judgment every single day to do what is in the best interest of our workforce and patients,” Babineau said. “We are doing things that quite frankly haven’t been done before.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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