Pa. state lab can now test for coronavirus, but its capability is limited

Cynthia Fernandez
Spotlight PA
Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Acting Secretary Jennifer Smith, left, and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine answer questions following a discussion of the "Warm Handoff" program, which gets overdose survivors from the emergency room directly into treatment for addiction, in the Medical Education Pavilion at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Pennsylvania’s state lab now has the ability to test for the new coronavirus, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Tuesday.

Currently, the Exton facility is able to process just six tests a day. “We are hoping to be able to conduct more tests a day by the end of week," a Department of Health spokesperson said.

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, but the department had over the past month sent samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. The state lab is “testing samples as we speak,” Levine told reporters Tuesday.

The ability to test at the state lab is “extremely important,” she added. The lab can return results on the same day if a sample is received in the morning.

Commercial labs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also be able to test samples.

Because of previously limited testing, Levine said the department doesn’t know “if there’s been community spread" in Pennsylvania. “We’ll not be surprised if we have a positive test,” she said.

Levine declined to say how many people are being monitored in Pennsylvania.

>>>Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

As of Tuesday afternoon, nine people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, while the number of confirmed cases exceeded 100. Worldwide, there are more than 90,000 reported cases, according to the World Health Organization, and upwards of 3,000 deaths.

The state has spent roughly $200,000 so far responding to the virus, Levine said.

If a person in Pennsylvania believes they may have COVID-19, Levine said they should contact their healthcare provider. That provider, in turn, will call the department’s command center to discuss the case with an epidemiologist and determine if testing is appropriate.

Spotlight PA logo

Testing for COVID-19 is not a rapid test like the one health providers use to diagnose strep throat.

“This will be a sample that will be collected by healthcare practitioners and then sent to the lab for testing," she said.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and can appear two to 14 days after initial exposure. Older adults and people with underlying health issues — like chronic cardiac disease or other conditions that might weaken the immune system — are most at risk for serious complications from a COVID-19 infection, according to the CDC.

Health officials are recommending people regularly wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.

Spotlight PA receives funding from nonprofit institutions and readers  who are committed to investigative journalism that gets results. Give a gift today at