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HUNTINGTON — Mountain Health Network is working to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities as the system balances testing its patient population and furthering public health.

Dr. Hoyt Burdick, chief clinical officer for Mountain Health Network, said President Jerome Gilbert’s concerns about Cabell Huntington Hospital’s COVID-19 testing capabilities are valid, but the system is expanding its capacity.

In explaining the university’s plan for surveillance testing last week, Gilbert told the Marshall board of governors the university would be using all of Cabell Huntington’s COVID-19 test processing capabilities. The university is testing up to 60 people a day paired with testing of about 175 football players and staff three times a week.

Burdick said the hospital continues to test 40-50 surgery patients a day for COVID-19, as does St. Mary’s Medical Center, which also has testing capabilities. They also work with Marshall Health to test others in the community.

He said they have been working in coordination with state and local public health officials to balance caring for their patients but also furthering the efforts to test the general public.

“Our goal at Mountain Health is to get adequate reserves to meet whatever the public health can’t meet,” Burdick said. “There is still a tremendous role for public health and their testing strategies. They had Fairfield West testing on two occasions, which tested thousands. We can’t really scale up to that level, but as the suppliers and manufacturers of the instruments and as we procure additional testing capacity for our population, we are doing that regularly.”

St. Mary’s is adding a new machine that can test 96 tests at one time, he said.

“We are anxiously awaiting the antigen testing,” Burdick said. “The testing we do now is PCR — polymerase chain reaction, which is a very high-tech and very difficult, well, time-consuming test. The antigen test is faster, and if it’s positive it probably means something. If it’s negative, it’s not as reliable. Nationally, I think you are going to see a shift from this scientific, almost research-level COVID-19 testing that is the only test we at the hospital can rely on now to a simpler antigen testing that will be point of care.”

He said they are anxiously awaiting word from the Federal Drug Administration on antigen testing so they can expand further, faster.

“You need that result now,” he said. “We have been able to get to 24- to 48-hour time of turnaround.”

Burdick said they are able to sustain the current testing load they have, but they want to be able to support public health even more.

“Dr. Gilbert’s concern that the student population testing might stress the capacity of our testing ability is true, but every day we are adding to that capacity, so in the future we hope to augment what Marshall and Dr. [Michael] Kilkenny at the health department can do,” Burdick said.

Marshall has a tent on Buskirk Field where students can get tested. A random sample of students is also chosen each day to get tested, such as students living in dorms or who have class in different buildings.

“This will be a good way to monitor spread,” Gilbert said. “We will also get a peek into the residence halls and other places by testing our athletes.”

The university plans to spend upward of $16,000 a week on testing.

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