Rapid COVID-19 testing is making its way to Hamilton County in spite of manufacturing limits

Hamilton County hospitals hope to begin rapid COVID-19 tests in May after plans to begin the tests this week fell through.

The speedier tests can confirm the virus in as little as five minutes and provide a negative result in about 15 minutes. County Mayor Jim Coppinger said rapid testing was originally set to start locally this week, but fell through when supplies were needed elsewhere.

According to Coppinger, all three local hospitals had been coordinating their own supplies to use for the quick tests, but the supplies were rerouted to help in "hot spot" areas such as New York City and New Orleans, where the situation is more dire.

"The hospitals had been telling us that they were expecting them around April 6, 7 or 8 and then one hospital reported that they had been deployed to hot spots in other states and they wouldn't be getting them until maybe May," Coppinger said Thursday. "It was never like a whole lot of them was being reserved for or shipped to Hamilton County. It was something that the hospitals were looking into on their own."

While Coppinger said rapid tests were not being coordinated by the county, he did say that the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department's new drive-thru assessment center and local testing lab will continue to fulfill some of the community's testing needs while the hospitals wait for the rapid testing.

"The rapid tests are going to be a great thing whenever they're available to everyone, but right now, fortunately, we're not one of the very hot spots," Coppinger added. "We're looking to maintain and grow our testing at the Baylor lab right now because this community testing is being done in just a few hours, so it's really helping us identify the positive cases, even without rapid tests."

Despite the delay locally, the Abbott-ID rapid tests are gaining popularity elsewhere and across the state after support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, helping cut through backlogs of potential COVID-19 cases that have amassed over the first month of testing.

"The development and implementation of this technology will help states all across the country to test more people faster and chip away at the testing backlog that's been such a problem," Gov. Bill Lee said on a news conference call Wednesday. "[Tuesday] the CDC provided our state health lab with one ID Now machine and 120 additional tests. We're actively working to get more tests to maximize this technology after we try this initial round."

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said those first 120 tests will be saved for emergency purposes until the stock grows, at which point the state can use rapid testing for quicker response to priority cases.

"Those traditional tests, those take 4 or 5 hours to batch and we do a few batches per day," Piercey said on the call. "But if a sample comes in that needs to be prioritized like a nursing home, hospitalization or a health care professional, we can use that off-cycle in order to turn around quick results."

"We do anticipate growing capacity in the month of April on that rapid platform and look forward to growing that," she said.

Meanwhile, some private caregivers are scouting use of rapid testing in their Tennessee facilities.

Dr. Bruce Irwin, CEO of American Family Care, who operates clinics throughout Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee and Memphis, told reporters on a call this week with state officials that AFC will be rolling this out throughout the state as more and more tests become available.

"We first rolled out in New York and Long Island and then in Massachusetts and the third state we're rolling this out is here in Tennessee. And again we're very grateful to Abbott. They control which states get it. We've been fighting mightily for the Southeast and we're very fortunate to be able to be able to bring it to all the people of Tennessee," Irwin said Wednesday, citing how some other testing methods can take days or even weeks to detect the virus. "This machine is an amazing game changer ... the first test that came out was so difficult, it can take days and weeks to get back. By the time it gets back they're already in the hospital or they're well."

Irwin said he expects rapid testing at the company's eight East Tennessee clinics, including the four in Hamilton County, in a little over a week, as machines are redistributed from other AFC locations, since manufacturing of the machines is limited.

"In our communications with Abbott - and we talk to Abbott several times a day - the limiting factor is or has been the machines because unless you had the machines in place, you would not have the technology to do the tests and you're limited to how fast they can manufacture the machines," he said. "And then on top of that, they had to develop a different technology to be able to perform the tests ... So they prioritized to the point of getting the tests to the companies that already have the machines, which is what I said earlier.

"We had bought several thousand machines a year or two ago to run other tests on. So it's going to be, as I said, they have a formula where they're prioritizing areas of the country," Irwin added. "I do not know their formula. They will not tell it to me."

Hamilton County residents who need testing can be referred by physicians to the health department's drive-thru testing facility where results are usually available within a few hours of the swab being collected.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.