The Abbott Laboratories ID Now testing machine

Philadelphia plans to roll out 15 rapid testing devices at coronavirus test sites, reducing the reveal time from days to minutes at high-volume clinics and congregate care settings in the city.

The portable, toaster-sized ID NOW devices, manufactured by medical supplier Abbott Laboratories, produce test results in as short as 13 minutes. Clinicians said in April that the widely used kit can produce false negatives, but the Illinois-based medical supplier said the problems have since been resolved.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is currently vetting the devices in city labs and expects they could be ready for use within a few weeks.

Jessica Caum, who oversees logistics and planning for the health department’s coronavirus response team, said health officials want to ensure against false negatives. So they’re comparing results with those from traditional PCR tests. The current gold standard for identifying the COVID-19 virus, PCR results often take 24 to 48 hours to return from the lab.

That’s a better turnaround than when testing first began in March, Caum said. Test sites currently process a total of about 1,300 people per day, returning an average of about 325 daily positives over the past week.

Officials hope the new devices will quicken the pace.

“We’d love to be faster,” Caum said. “Once we’ve validated the equipment and the testing methodology, I’m hoping we’ll be able to provide those devices to places where they’ll be very useful.”

Rapid point-of-care testing is widely available for other illnesses, from seasonal flu strains to strep throat. But two months into the pandemic, coronavirus-specific devices are just now becoming common. Abbott Laboratories also secured a federal contract for a different test that detects COVID-19 antibodies, which can indicate whether someone had the virus in the past.

Health experts view rapid testing, contact tracing and antibody testing as key components to safely reopening the economy,

While no specific Philadelphia sites have been named as recipients of the new rapid devices, health department spokesperson Jim Garrow said they’ll be placed in a combination of city-run health clinics, federally qualified health centers and possibly congregate facilities like the city’s four jails, where over 200 inmates have tested positive for the virus to date. They will not be distributed to privately run nursing homes, which do not have the necessary certificate of waiver, Garrow said.

At $4,500 a pop, the ID NOW machines don’t come cheap. Garrow said the first round was delivered free of charge by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The city’s health department purchases test supplies weekly from the International Reagent Resource. Abbott, the device manufacturer, also sells kits capable of 24 tests for $984 — or $41 a test, Garrow added.

If these devices pan out, health officials said the department plans to acquire more and make them more widely available.

Said Caum: “We would love to see this in every clinic and [give them] the ability to do this point-of-care rapid test. Maybe that’s something that will come down the road. We’re not there yet.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...