By Alaa Elassar, CNN
A small clinic in central Pennsylvania has set up drive-through coronavirus testing that accommodates horse and buggies for its local Amish and Mennonite communities.
The Central Pennsylvania Clinic in Belleville, a town known for its majority Amish and Mennonite population, is one of the only coronavirus testing facilities in the area. The clinic’s founder and medical director, Dr. D. Holmes Morton, collaborated with Regina Lamendella, the co-founder of a start-up which detects and diagnoses infectious diseases, to develop a new way to test for the virus.
Medical personnel at the clinic collect the swab samples before sending them to the lab at Lamendella’s company, Contamination Source Identification (CSI), to be processed. Since launching drive-through testing on April 1, the clinic provided nearly 65 coronavirus tests.
While the clinic is also utilizing the currently available FDA-approved RT-qPCR test, Lamendella said the test has “as little as 66% sensitivity” and can fail to detect the virus in asymptomatic carriers. So the lab developed and validated their own test that uses rapid, untargeted mRNA sequencing — along with the virus’ RT-qPCR to quickly and accurately detect the virus. “Our test, the CSI-Dx test system, directly detects the viral genome of Covid-19,” Lamendella, who is also a biology professor at Juniata College, told CNN.
“With this test, we’re able to see the entire viral genome and how it’s changing and what strains are floating around. Keeping up with that evolution of the pathogen is going to be very important because we know the type of pathogen it is, an RNA virus, can change very quickly.”
While most coronavirus tests currently available take “approximately one week” for results to become available, Lamendella said her lab returns test results in 19 hours or less, thanks to their RAPID-Dx data analysis tool, developed by co-founder Justin Wright. And unlike most testing facilities, the CSI lab is also equipped and staffed to perform and process several hundred tests every day.
Expanding testing to asymptomatic carriers
Although most hospitals only test patients with severe symptoms of Covid-19, Lamendella and Morton are doing their best to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus who don’t know they’re positive. “We all know from experience that the epidemic is really perpetuated by people who are relatively asymptomatic but still infectious,” Morton told CNN.
“What we’re trying to do is get ahead of the infection in this area by offering testing at low costs, particularly within the Amish community. This is also to educate them about the risk of having gatherings, whether its church or weddings or funerals.”
Recent studies suggest 25% to 50% of coronavirus carriers don’t have symptoms. Coronavirus is also twice as contagious as the flu; a person with coronavirus can infect “4 to 10 other people,” Morton said, adding that this means social gatherings could turn fatal, fast. For communities like the Amish and Mennonites, who regularly hold large social gatherings, it is critical to educate them on the importance of maintaining social distancing precautions — as well as the importance of getting tested.
“They are an especially at-risk community. Culturally they’re somewhat isolated from the news media. So they aren’t constantly watching the news or reading the newspaper, while those of us who are immersed in the news have become remarkable well-informed scientifically,” Morton, who specializes in genetic disorders of Amish and Mennonite children, said.
“Another thing that makes them vulnerable is how social they are. When they have church, they have 300 people crowded together in a little farmhouse. From the point of view of an infection like this, this is a disaster.”
CSI now hopes to partner up with other local hospitals and clinics who don’t have access to the lab’s specialized research equipment to continue expanding the availability of coronavirus testing.
There are more than 14,900 confirmed coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania. The entire state is under a stay at home order through April 30. The virus has topped over 398,000 cases throughout the country, and nearly 13,000 people have died.