SARANAC LAKE — “Saranac Lake can do something bigger.”
That’s the thought that occurred to Trudeau Institute President Atsuo Kuki as local health care industry leaders and elected officials discussed the possibility of establishing a COVID-19 testing lab at Adirondack Medical Center earlier this year.
Rather than serve just Saranac Lake and the surrounding area with a small set of equipment, Kuki realized that, with some help, it could be possible for the lab to build up enough capacity to serve other counties in the seven-county north country region.
“It became overwhelming, to my way of looking at this,” Kuki said Thursday. “Saranac Lake can do something bigger.”
That idea is gradually becoming a reality. A new high-speed COVID-19 test lab, located at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and operated by Adirondack Health technicians, opened last month with a single machine capable of processing 80 tests per day with a result turnaround time of 24 hours.
Another unit just like it, made by Rheonix Inc. of Ithaca, will arrive next week. It will be up and running a few days after it arrives, boosting the lab’s capacity to 160 tests per day, according to Adirondack Health CEO Sylvia Getman.
For now, the high-speed, in-house tests at AMC are being reserved for people who need results quickly, such as first responders, hospital patients, nursing home residents and schoolchildren — but that won’t always be the case.
Generally, tests take around two or three days to come back from a lab. In some cases, when labs outside of the area are overwhelmed, results can take upward of 10 days to come back.
Essex County’s deadliest outbreak to date — at the Essex Center nursing home and rehabilitation facility in Elizabethtown — was likely made worse by slow test turnaround times. Three nursing home staff members, who later tested positive although they didn’t have any symptoms, continued working inside the facility for 19 days while waiting for routine test results.
When a person is tested for COVID-19 here, usually the test sample is transported to a lab elsewhere for processing, such as the Wadsworth Center in Albany. The Wadsworth Center also processes samples from other parts of the state, and at times throughout the past few months, the lab struggled to process all of the samples being sent there.
The next phase of AMC’s lab buildout will increase the lab’s capacity nearly tenfold.
A new machine has been ordered that is capable of testing not only for COVID-19 but a variety of other viruses, including those we don’t know about yet but which can be programmed into the machine, according to Adirondack Health spokesman Matt Scollin.
“Bringing that in has been something a lot of people have been working on for a long time,” Kuki said.
With the high demand for such machines across the country, it’s unclear when it will arrive. It was ordered back in June, according to Getman. When it does arrive, the machine, a Roche Cobas 6800, will have the ability to process 1,000 tests per day.
Between Nov. 5 and 12, about 1,932 tests of Essex County residents alone were processed at various labs, according to data from the Essex County Health Department. The number of tests processed varied in that time frame but were generally between 100 and 350 per day.
When the coronavirus pandemic is contained, the plan is for the lab at AMC to transition to processing tests for other viruses such as flu, HIV and HPV. Trudeau Institute researchers will also have the ability to use the lab to develop new tests for future outbreaks.
Altogether, this lab is expected to cost more than $1 million to build out.
The goal is for this lab to be financially self-sustaining in the future, but both Adirondack Health and Trudeau Institute have needed to fundraise for the initial buildout. A number of private donors have already contributed, and Essex County invested $50,000.
“In terms of funding, we’re getting there, but certainly not there yet,” Scollin said. “We continue to pursue a number of public and private funding sources, which will be critical as we look to the project’s second phase.”
Those interested in contributing to the project can contact the Adirondack Health Foundation at 518-897-2597.
The new lab has been months in the making.
Since late spring, Trudeau Institute has been quietly working on it not only with Adirondack Health but with other officials across Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, according to Kuki.
An informal group dubbed Adirondack Open was created as phone conversations became more and more concrete about ways to not only keep the region open but to solve a longstanding issue with testing capacity and turnaround times, according to Kuki.
In these phone calls, Kuki said he learned more about what was happening at other hospitals around the region. He also reached out to friends who worked at labs for guidance.
“I started calling them, and they started telling me the path to launching something much more serious here,” Kuki said. “I felt that the key was the leadership, and we had the ability to pull together the leaders.”
Over time, these phone calls became more and more specific. Options for small-scale lab equipment and large-scale equipment were discussed. Ultimately, the larger option was chosen, opening the doors to a lab with the capacity to process tests from around the region.