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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

This West Side Hospital Has A 15-Minute COVID Test Machine — But None Of The Resources To Use It

"That machine is just sitting there, looking pretty," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Romeen Lavani said.

Saint Anthony Hospital set up a testing tent outside to help handle the influx of COVID-19 patients.
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NORTH LAWNDALE — When Saint Anthony Hospital was gifted the ID NOW testing machine, they expected it to be a game changer.

The hospital previously had been forced to wait up to two weeks for COVID-19 test results due to overburdened labs. The new machine could diagnose a patient in five to 15 minutes.

But for weeks, the testing machine has sat unused in Saint Anthony’s lab. Hospital officials said they cannot get all the proper components to operate it.

“That machine is just sitting there, looking pretty,” said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Romeen Lavani.

The hospital was gifted the $30,000 machine on Easter weekend by MedGlobal, a health nonprofit affiliated with doctors and administrators at Saint Anthony. The hospital ordered the software and chemical reagents needed to run the tests two weeks before the machine arrived so they would be ready to hit the ground running, but they still have not received them.

Abbott Laboratories, the company that produces the point-of-care rapid test machine, says they are not experiencing any shortage of the test supplies.

Abbott currently producing 50,000 test kits per day, which includes the reagents and swabs needed to run a test, according to a company statement. By June, the company expects to ramp up production to 2 million test kits per month.

“We’re providing ID NOW COVID-19 tests to federal, state and local governments, in addition to our customers (largely hospital emergency rooms and urgent care clinics,)” the company said in a statement. “…The majority of these tests have been sent to outbreak hotspots and we’ve asked that customers prioritize frontline health care workers and first responders.”

Lavani said Saint Anthony should be a priority for receiving testing supplies since the hospital serves an especially vulnerable population of Black and Latino people.

The proportion of patients testing positive for the virus at Saint Anthony Hospital also is far higher than the statewide average. According to Lavani, about 20 percent of people tested are confirmed to have COVID-19, but at Saint Anthony, the rate is upwards of 50 percent.

Clinicians cannot treat patients they cannot properly diagnose, nor can they offer effective medical advice on how to prevent the spread of the disease. Inefficient testing options are also a drain on the hospital’s resources, Lavani said.

Without being able to quickly confirm whether a patient has the infection, the already under-resourced safety net hospital is forced to dedicate scarce nursing staff and medical supplies on patients who may not even have the highly contagious virus.

“You must do all the things you would do with a COVID patient: put them in isolation, use (personal protective equipment),  have the staffing requirements that you would need for a COVID patient. …Now you’re using PPE for 10 days. Let’s say the test comes back negative after 10 days, then essentially you wasted PPE which is so precious right now,” Lavani said.

As a safety net hospital, Saint Anthony has few resources to spare. About 70 percent of their patients are insured through Medicaid. The state’s Managed Care Organizations contracted to handle those payments owe the hospital over $30 million, hospital administrators say.

That precarious financial position makes it all the more important for the hospital to be efficient with its resources, a balancing act that Lavani said the hospital is managing well despite the challenges.

Though Abbott denies there is a shortage of components needed to run the test machine, Saint Anthony’s lab director Ron Longino said the hospital has been forced to wait for the company to send the reagents and the software because there are no other alternatives on the market that are compatible with the machine.

“It’s proprietary,” Longino said, adding that colleagues at other hospitals across the country are in a similar situation of having an unusable testing machine.

Palos Hospital in suburban Palos Heights is struggling with the same issue. They have the ID NOW test machine, but it is entirely unusable because they can’t get a hold of the reagents needed to use it.

Longino also ordered two additional ID NOW testing machines along with the software and reagents in late March that have yet to arrive.

In order to maintain the high quality of care at Saint Anthony, the hospital began a partnership with the University of Chicago Medical Center that will allow some priority patients to get results much more quickly than the ones being sent to LabCorps — which can take over a week.

Longino said the university medical center can produce test results in 12 to 24 hours.

Despite the help from the university, Lavani said Saint Anthony will be in a much better position when they finally get can finally get their own testing machine up and running.

“Our concern is that we have this expensive machine that got donated to us that we could easily use and do a lot more testing which would be much quicker… and we just see this being wasted,” Lavani said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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