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Hundreds Of Positive COVID-19 Cases At D.C.'s Children's National Hospital

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A coronavirus vaccine is still months away at a minimum, and public health officials are concerned that reopening businesses without the proper precautions and large gatherings, like this week's protests, may fuel a spike in infections. So testing is as important as it's ever been to navigating this pandemic.

MEGHAN DELANEY: Hi, my name is Meghan Delaney. I'm the chief of the laboratory and pathology division at Children's National. So we are standing in the microbiology and molecular microbiology laboratory. And this is where all of the different tests happen to detect the infectious diseases that people may get.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We were given exclusive access to Children's National Hospital here in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of children have tested positive for the virus in the D.C. metro area, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Children are less likely than other age groups to get seriously ill from COVID_19, but their role in how the virus spreads is still not well understood. To keep up with the demand on her office, Dr. Delaney has had to go to unprecedented lengths.

DELANEY: So it's been one of the most challenging times for laboratories. I mean, in my entire career, we have done more new tests, bringing on new tests in the past two months than you usually do in a year. Usually in a lab, you would just have one kind of test for that disease. But because of the supply chain issues, we actually brought in as many different tests as we could because if any one test the company wasn't able to supply us with the supplies, we could still keep testing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the laboratory, machines, some large, some small, whir and hum. Often, hospitals send their tests away to outside labs for processing, which can cause bottlenecks and delays. Here at Children's, they do the testing and the lab work themselves but at a cost.

DELANEY: So now, actually, we're running four different molecular tests for COVID that we run every day. And three of them are rapid. And so that means that we can detect the virus between 45 and 90 minutes of analytical time. Another one that we have is a slower one, but it can do big batches. So they're slightly different in their workflows. We also have another test called the antibody test. So that's a blood test to see if your immune system has responded to the virus. And we implemented that in mid-May.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Five different kinds of tests all because of one virus. Children's has had to ramp up quickly. They first tested for COVID March 13.

DELANEY: And now we do somewhere between 150 to 200 a day. We've tested over 5,000 tests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But two and a half months in, so much time is still being spent on sourcing components for these tests.

DELANEY: It's definitely stressful when you're working with stressed supply chains. I wish I had certain supplies I don't have. I'll say that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take for example this rapid test.

DELANEY: This is what's called the Cepheid. You've actually heard about this on the news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's in the news because it's the same type of test President Trump touted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a great test. It's a very quick test, and it can always be very rapidly double checked. If you're testing positive or negative, it can always be double checked. But it's a very good test.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The machine looks like a large double fridge with glass doors.

DELANEY: And if you look inside, you can see those little blue cartridges. That's a single test cartridge that gets put on this little, tiny conveyor belt. And it goes in. And this one is - can run 48 samples at one time. And it can do single access to one at a time in 45 minutes. So this is one of our favorite tests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Except they can't get enough of the cartridges. She compares them to those single-serving pods in high-end coffee machines.

DELANEY: You put them in the coffee machine, and it makes one perfect cup of coffee. These rapid tests are like that. The cartridges are heavily manufactured with all the gene targets in there. So you just add the sample to it, pop it on, and it goes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The company can't make enough, and that's not all. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: There are a lot of things that I think we've learned and that we are correcting and going to correct. Namely, you have a situation where tests are needed and appropriate, and either people have found there's no tests or there's no reagents or there's no swabs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reagents are the chemicals necessary to extract genetic material from the testing samples. Children's National is still having trouble getting a reliable supply of them and swabs more than seven weeks after Fauci said the White House was correcting the issue.

This is the thing, though. While Dr. Meghan Delaney says testing for an active infection is important, what will really help epidemiologists to understand this pandemic are serology tests, which look at antibodies. She shows us their new serology testing machine.

DELANEY: Which is about size of a golf cart. It's pretty big. And then bring it in. We had to have the staff trained. So it was a lot to pull off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says epidemiologists need to get a clear picture of what's going on.

Should we all get serology tests at some point? Like, what do you think?

DELANEY: I do think we should all get serology tests. Yes, I do. I think it's really a public health importance. Someday in the future, we'll be looking back on today. And we'll want to know, how has the pandemic impacted us now? - so we can also when we get to the future, be able to ask the same question again and see where we were and where we've come.

DELANEY: There is still so much testing to be done here in the U.S. and a long way to go before we understand this pandemic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.