CHARLOTTE, N.C. (McClatchy) - Atrium Health is processing coronavirus tests at just 20% to 25% of its capacity due to a national shortage of the chemicals needed to run the test, the Charlotte-based company’s president told a U.S. Senate panel Tuesday.
Gene Woods, president and CEO of the not-for-profit system, said Atrium can handle 4,000 coronavirus tests per day with its in-house lab equipment. But they are processing far less than that, he said, “due to the national supply shortage in reagents.”
Reagents are chemicals used in a reaction to detect a substance and are needed in COVID-19 testing to get a positive or negative result.
“We could probably do four times the amount of tests and have close to same-day turnaround, the challenge is reagents and, still in some respects, swabs,” Woods said. “We really need to continue to beef up the supplies of reagents so that we can expedite the testing. That would be our request.”
Nearly five months after the first lab-confirmed coronavirus case in North Carolina, the state is again dealing with long wait times for test results.
The average turnaround time is now closer to six or seven days, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s top health official. That turnaround time was two or three days in June.
Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said the turnaround time in the county is five to 10 days.
RACIAL HEALTH DISPARITIES
Woods said his health care system has expanded its base of suppliers as a result of the pandemic, adding vendors it did not have before.
Atrium Health has spent about $45 million to make sure it has enough personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Woods said during his remote appearance before the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging.
The hearing was to consider the racial health disparities highlighted by the pandemic, specifically as it relates to seniors.
North Carolina has more than 101,000 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 1,600 people have died from the virus since March.
In North Carolina, those 65 years and older account for 12% of all coronavirus cases, but nearly 80% of the deaths.
One-quarter of all cases and one-third of all deaths in North Carolina are among Black residents, who make up 22% of the state’s population. Hispanics make up 43% of all cases in the state, but less than 10% of the state’s overall population.
The witnesses at the hearing said issues such as affordable housing, food insecurity and the education gap are playing a large part in disparities related to COVID.
“It’s about people not having equity and equality in accessing jobs, education and health care,” said Rodney Jones, Sr., CEO of East Liberty Health Center in Pittsburgh.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the committee, said her state is the worst in terms of racial disparity, She attributed the gap to the prevalence of minorities working in service jobs that cannot be done remotely as well as underlying health conditions.
North Carolina is missing race data from more than 32,000 cases and 50 deaths and is missing ethnicity data from more than 35,000 cases and 110 deaths. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said only 55% of cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control include race and ethnicity data.
In Mecklenburg County, Blacks make up 15.3% of cases and 31.5% of deaths, while Hispanics make up 30.8% of cases and 12.4% of deaths. Nearly 40% of cases in the county do not have racial data.
Woods said Atrium’s internal data collection and analytics, which it shared with local public health departments, allowed it to deploy roving testing vans to church and YMCA parking lots in six at-risk ZIP codes in Mecklenburg County. Woods said Atrium sent Spanish speakers to the sites in the Hispanic community.
“Without that real-time data, it is really difficult to contain and ultimately eliminate the COVID,” Woods said.
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, is a member of the committee. He introduced Woods, saying Atrium has more than 14 million patient interactions each year and that it employs nearly 70,000 people.
Woods said Atrium, along with other corporate and public partners in Charlotte, has distributed more than 500,000 masks to in the community with a focus on minorities and the elderly.
In late June, the group pledged to deliver 2 million masks to the community. Gov. Roy Cooper instituted a mask mandate in the state on June 24.