The public health workers at the New York City Public Health Laboratory have been going nonstop. The lab is the first to do COVID-19 testing in the five boroughs.
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New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot visited the lab on Thursday. NY1 was invited along for a tour.
“The point here is maximizing the testing capacity so that we get to a point where we test as many New Yorkers as possible,” Barbot said. “So it won’t just be us. It will be us and many other labs in New York City."
At the lab, we were only allowed so close to the testing. We could only watch what happened through the glass panel of the door.
An ominous warning was taped up, telling people like us to keep their distance, something we all should be getting used to.
“We’ve been clear that we’re not going to be anywhere near considering lifting restrictions on social distancing until at least some time in September. We also know that with lifting social distancing restrictions, we are likely going to see an increase in the number of cases that we see,” Barbot said. “So this is going to be an up and down type of response. I don’t think any of us can predict how long we will be in it.”
After our tour, Barbot’s office walked back those comments slightly, saying the virus will be with us for some time and requirements will be dictated by how severe the outbreak is.
We know in order for the city to relax social distancing requirements, officials are watching a number of indicators, including new hospital admissions and ICU patients.
One of those indicators is the percentage of positive tests coming out of the public health lab. On Tuesday, according to the latest numbers that were available, it was at 57% positive. The city wants it to get down to 30 percent.
The specimens in this lab all come from city hospitals — often very sick patients.
“If we look at just hospitalized patients, it does give us an indicator of how much spread is happening in the community and how many people are getting very sick and sick enough to end up in the hospital," said Jennifer Rakeman, the director for the New York City Public Health Laboratory.
At the start of the outbreak, this lab was one of the first to get approval to do COVID-19 testing. That testing now takes up about two floors of the health department’s building in Kips Bay.
Some of it is done automatically with machines. Some of the testing is still being done by hand.
The lab’s director said the number of tests done on any given day varies.
They have started genome sequencing, too — essentially taking the fingerprint of the virus in the city. That way, if there ever is another outbreak, public health officials will know if it’s a different strain.
With the public health lab and private labs put together, there are anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 COVID-19 tests done every day in the five boroughs. We asked the health commissioner how many tests need to be done in order for us to loosen these social distancing requirements we now have. She said as many as possible.