Kevin Hambourger is Medical Lab Technician at NorthShore University HealthSystem’s molecular laboratory at Evanston Hospital that has developed a COVID-19 test. Photo by Jon Hillenbrand, NorthShore University HealthSystem.

While Evanston officials wait for large-scale testing for the Coronavirus-19 to begin, a hospital in the City’s backyard is one of only a couple of dozens of hospitals across the country last week to go on line with its own test.

Researchers with the NorthShore University HealthSystem, which includes Evanston Hospital at 2650 N. Ridge Ave., went live March 12 with a same-day test based upon published data from the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) laboratory test.

Hospital researchers have been working in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Public Health laboratory in order to ensure the test was fully validated and performed identically to the CDC’s, the researchers said at a press conference March 13.

Speaking at a press conference, Dr. Karen Kaul, chair of NorthShore’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said, “One of the reasons we did this is because 10 years ago, when we were faced with the swine flu epidemic, we found ourselves in a situation to offer testing there.”

At that time, “we were not only able to test our patients in this region, get rapid answers out that were needed for patient care,” she said, “but also relieved some of the burden on the state lab as they were overwhelmed with testing – and we were hoping the capacity to test locally would again relieve some of the stress and strain on the labs at the Illinois Department of Public Health.”

Currently, Dr. Kaul said, “because our testing capacity is not what we ultimately will need it to be, we are restricting access to the tests to patients who are symptomatic and ill.”

At the press conference, Dr. Kamal Singh, Director of Microbiology & Infectious Diseases Research for NorthShore, noted, “as everybody knows, the amount of testing we have available is probably not at the level we would hope it would be so we do have to be very careful about who is currently being tested.

“What we have started is to try and stay very close to the recommendation by the Illinois Department of Public Health: that is essentially to test persons under investigation for COVID-19 infection,” he said.

“For example,” he said, “this would include individuals who have had fever, symptoms of lower respiratory tract illness, history of travel from the affected geographic areas such as China, South Korea, Iran, Italy etc.

“We are also permitting testing for patients who are hospitalized with either a severe acute lower respiratory tract illness even in the absence of a source of exposure.

But only if and when an alternative explanatory diagnosis has been ruled out,” he said.

 “We are very closely following these guidelines because once again, there is currently not a very large capacity to test,” Dr. Singh said. “Once we are able to rev testing up even further, we will shift our priorities from the sickest individuals and the individuals who will require testing outside the hospital setting, but our priority is still within the hospital setting for now.”

Some early reports indicated that the lab had conducted 400 Covid-19 tests and was working up to testing 500 people a day.

At this point, officials are no longer releasing numbers.

The testing right now is for patients in the North Shore System who go through a NorthShore physician first.

After individuals contact their physician (an emergency is an exception) and meet the criteria for a COVID-19 test, their physician will tell them which NorthShore site they should go to get “swabbed.” The swabbed material is then sent to NorthShore’s lab at Evanston Hospital, where lab technicians will run a COVID-19 test. 

Those with questions should call their physician, or the community health hotline NorthShore has set up at 847.432.5849 or begin an E-Visit through NorthShoreConnect.

During a Facebook Live call-in session last week, Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty and City Health & Human Services Director Ike Igbo called attention for large-scale testing to begin, in combination with the efforts the City has made to “flatten the curve” and limit exposure to Covid-19. Neither could be reached for further comment today, March 18.

At the March 13 press conference, Dr. Kaul noted that three types of tests exist currently.

The first is the CDC test that has been distributed for the past couple of weeks to public health laboratories, and which those labs are ramping up their ability to test.

“The second way has been the couple of dozens of hospitals across the U.S., who have done what we have done and developed a similar test to that of the CDC and pursued FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) and EUA (Emergency Use Authorization) which we will be doing next week, and validated tests,” she said.

 “But in the interim they (the hospitals) can test on site because we need rapid answers to appropriately care for these patients,” she said.

“The third way that is about to start: We will be seeing large (research) labs and manufacturers of diagnostic materials achieve EUA authorization for their kits,” she said at the press conference,” “and I anticipate that we will be seeing several of those available to hospital laboratories in the coming days to weeks so that will also ease the limitations we currently have.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.