Rapid virus tests come to Atlanta as testing slowly ramps up

Georgia still trails in widespread testing. Tests not yet available to general public.

CVS Health on Monday opened a drive-through coronavirus testing center in Atlanta that the company said can provide results within minutes. A Sandy Springs laboratory that’s developed its own testing protocol, meanwhile, said it will have capacity to process thousands of samples per day for customers such as major health systems and rural hospitals.

The announcements come as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, climb and as Georgia continues to rank near the bottom nationally in testing on a per capita basis, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows.

The state has pledged to ramp up testing capacity, and last week announced a partnership between the University System of Georgia, Emory University and state agencies that is also expected to dramatically increase test processing capabilities. The state’s public health lab and facilities at Augusta University, Georgia State and Emory are expected to soon begin processing up to 3,000 tests per day, provided the state can source enough supplies.

Tests remain rationed in Georgia for the very sick and those most at risk of infection, such as residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes and those on the front lines of the emergency, such medical workers and first responders.

And it is unclear when tests might be made available to a broader segment of the public.

Cars wait in line at the COVID-19 drive-through testing center near Georgia Tech Monday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJCPhoto: Steve Schaefer

CVS said its site at a parking garage at Georgia Tech will be capable of testing up to 1,000 people per day. Patients must be pre-registered through the CVS website and have a scheduled appointment to receive a test. Tests are being administered only for patients who meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which generally match the state restrictions.

The tests will be made available free to all patients who receive registration, regardless of insurance status.

“Increased access to rapid testing remains one of our top priorities in order to identify more cases, get Georgians the care they need, and prevent further infection in our communities,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a news release.

Dr. Troyen Brennan, chief medical officer for CVS, said the Georgia Tech testing site will operate five drive-through lanes. The company is deploying Abbott ID Now testing devices that can return results within minutes.

“The important thing is that people will find out now rather than in three, four, five, six, seven days from now the results of the tests,” Brennan told the AJC.

CVS employee Jim Crispyn gets his temperature checked during check-in in preparation for the opening of the COVID-19 drive-through testing center in Atlanta on Monday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJCPhoto: Steve Schaefer

A national shortage of kits and other testing supplies and limited lab processing capacity has resulted in rationing of coronavirus tests throughout Georgia and across the U.S. Long delays in processing tests also have obscured the view of the virus’ march in Georgia and other parts of the country.

Some health systems and patients have complained to the AJC of waits of a week or longer to get results.

Though the state Department of Public Health has said its lab can return results in 24 hours to 72 hours, the state lab processes only a fraction of the samples collected in Georgia. The overwhelming majority is processed by large national labs, which have experienced longer processing times.

As of noon Monday, state and commercial labs had processed 31,274 tests in Georgia combined. On a per capita basis, Georgia ranked 45th among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to an AJC analysis of testing data from the COVID Tracking Project.

When the AJC performed the same analysis on Wednesday, Georgia ranked 41st.

Leah Roberts opens up a delivery of COVID-19 samples for testing from a local practice as fellow Molecular Biologist Aubrey Kellison looks on, at Ipsum Diagnostics labratory on Monday, March 23, 2020. Kellison is training in order to take procedures back to West Virginia to implement. JOHN AMIS / FOR THE AJCPhoto: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At midday Monday, Georgia ranked 10th in total deaths and 12th in confirmed cases. Louisiana, which has fewer than half of Georgia’s population has processed twice as many tests. Utah, which has a third of Georgia’s population, has processed a similar number of samples.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said state and private labs processed about 2,500 tests per day over the past week. That’s far too few, he said.

“We need a more coordinated effort on the part of the state to ramp up testing which we are still tragically behind on,” he said.

Augusta University and the state’s health lab have started ramping up capacity in recent days. A spokesman for Kemp said the state lab and Georgia State’s facility “have made additional sample test kits from scratch and will push out an estimated 4,000 kits to support outbreak investigations across the state.”

FDA gives local lab OK

Ipsum Diagnostics, in Sandy Springs, last week earned an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a test protocol it designed in-house. FDA has granted only 28 EUAs for COVID-19 tests as of Monday.

Lauren Bricks, co-founder and COO of Ipsum, said the company is working to secure contracts with major health systems, rural hospitals and other institutions. She said Ipsum, which has about 30 employees, is capable of processing 4,000 tests per day, with round-the-clock processing. Ipsum can return results within 24 hours of receiving specimens.

“The plan is we will do it until it isn’t needed,” she said.

CVS nurse Evelyn Larson goes through the steps to check-in in preparation for the opening of the COVID-19 drive-through testing center in Atlanta on Monday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJCPhoto: Steve Schaefer

Lab leadership saw the potential COVID-19 threat to the U.S. in late January and began work on a testing protocol. The CDC developed its own testing protocol, but Bricks said her team recognized that there would be a run on supplies by other labs to support the CDC’s testing regimen and Ipsum decided to develop one independently.

“We knew that was going to be a problem,” she said. “Everyone was going to be going after the same extraction kits and the same master mix kits.”

Ipsum obtained samples of the virus’ genome from a unit of the National Institutes of Health and spent weeks designing and proofing its protocol to meet FDA’s EUA requirements. Ipsum partnered with Omega Biotech of Norcross to obtain extraction kits to sample patients, Bricks said.

Ipsum’s test protocol is for a high-throughput system known as QuantStudio 12K Flex, that allows the lab to process nearly 400 specimens at a time. When Ipsum started its FDA application, the sole approved protocol at the time was for a system that could process fewer than 100 specimen at a time.

Bricks said labs across the country that use the same equipment can use Ipsum’s protocols to start their own processing.

“Every single employee here put their heart and soul into this,” she said.

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