With Private Labs Now Sharing COVID-19 Data, NJ in Better Shape to Plan, Project

Working with newly available stats, state learns one in four symptomatic patients tested have COVID-19
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Community mitigation — so-called flattening the curve — can help curb the spread of COVID-19, but only to a point.

Gov. Phil Murphy has often highlighted his data-driven approach to solving problems, from addressing opioid addiction to creating well-paying jobs.

Starting Tuesday, New Jersey officials got their first real — yet limited — glimpse at coronavirus testing data they said will help them plan for the pending surge of COVID-19 patients expected at hospitals around the state. The information will eventually inform how long they leave strict social-distancing measures in place.

The initial results show that at least one in four people with respiratory symptoms tested positive for COVID-19, indicating that nearly three-quarters are sick with something else. By Tuesday, 3,675 Garden State residents had become ill from the novel coronavirus, including 44 who had died, based on data from the state public health lab and seven private facilities.

‘Informed decisions’ instead of ‘educated guesses’

“The more we have facts, the more we can make fully informed decisions as opposed to just educated guesses,” Murphy said at the state media briefing Tuesday. “Getting our arms around (the data) is going to be critical to winning this public health battle.”

This initial “positivity rate” was calculated with data that only became available after the governor’s order on Monday afternoon compelling private labs — which are now conducting the vast majority of COVID-19 tests — to turn over more information. Before then, the state Department of Health was only assured of receiving positive test results; they should now get figures for positive, negative and inconclusive outcomes.

It is not clear why Murphy waited until Monday to require private labs to share more details; commercial entities first began processing COVID-19 tests on March 9. He has repeatedly voiced concerns about the limited information available to state officials over the past week. He has also frequently praised private labs and other businesses for their efforts to support the state’s coronavirus battle.

The need for this data appeared to grow more apparent by the day. On the first day private testing was allowed, only one of the 11 positive cases identified in New Jersey came from a commercial facility, with the remaining 10 processed at the state lab, health officials said. Ten days later, as private capacity ramped up, commercial labs reported 312 of the 318 positive cases, a swing from handling 9% to 96% of the testing load.

Coronavirus field hospitals

DOH commissioner Judith Persichilli said the increase in data enables the state to examine various hospital-use scenarios and better predict when they will need beds in particular critical-care spots. The state is now working with academic experts to model this surge and has partnered with federal officials, hospital systems and motel operators to create field hospitals and repurpose other facilities for patient care.

“It’s a vitally important percentage,” Persichilli said Tuesday, as New Jersey learned it had the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases of any state, after New York.  “It will help us in our predictive modeling and in understanding the type of care these individuals will require.”

As this data picture emerges over time, Murphy said it would also help guide Garden State officials in deciding things like when residents can resume some social activities and nonessential businesses can reopen. But it could be two weeks before they know the real impact of these mitigation efforts, he warned.

“The more we understand about the raw data, the better we will be able to crack the back of this virus, sooner rather than later,” the governor said Sunday. “And we will be able to do this, and as one New Jersey family.”

In his letter Monday to all clinical laboratories authorized to perform COVID-19 testing, New Jersey’s homeland security director Jared M. Maples said the state’s Domestic Security Preparedness Act of 2001 allowed him to compel them to provide testing information the state needed to protect public health.

“As testing for COVID-19 expands throughout New Jersey, it is imperative that the State receive timely and accurate COVID-19 test results to properly coordinate remediation actions and assess risks to delivery of essential health care services,” Maples wrote.

The timing could be critical as more screening locations come online and the number of samples to be processed continues to rise. The state now runs two drive-thru screening sites with the Federal Emergency Management Agency — in Bergen and Middlesex counties — while county governments and health care systems are opening additional sample-collection sites almost daily. Many of the specimens collected in these operations are being sent to private labs, according to public officials and lab companies.

Opting to use private testing labs

Doctors and hospitals screening patients with respiratory symptoms can chose a public or private lab for testing; many have opted for commercial facilities with greater capacity and shorter turnaround time.

“This public health emergency has demonstrated the critical need for providers to be able to share and receive information in real time,” said Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a coalition that advocates for data-driven ways to keep people healthier. “As we work through the crisis we hope the commonsense solutions that have emerged become the standard going forward,” she said, referencing the new reporting requirements Murphy enacted.

The state lab could process between 40 and 60 samples daily as of last week, officials said, which they hope will rise to 1,000 a day by this Friday. Private labs can handle closer to 20,000 samples daily, from doctors across the nation, according to company representatives who joined the state briefing Friday. The industry is working hard to increase this volume even more, they said.

While the private data shared Tuesday comes from seven labs — and was considered sufficient enough to make public — it appeared not all commercial entities had followed Murphy’s reporting order as required. Persichilli said it reflected 92% of the total testing data and included results from 12,000 processed tests, 27% of which were found positive for COVID-19.

“It’s a imperfect window in the broader data universe,” Murphy said. “But it’s a step.”