Even with lots of testing, detecting variants takes time

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A surveillance testing site at Cornell University. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — New York state detected the first cases of the omicron variant last week. Most of the cases were found in New York City. 

Cornell University professor Diego Diel runs a testing lab that is working to identify variants and mutations in the genome of the coronavirus.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said it is likely only a matter of time before the omicron variant is found upstate. In fact, omicron might already be here, but still undetected. There’s a lag between infection and detection. From nose swab to DNA sequence, Diel said checking for variants can take almost a week.

“It takes quite a bit of time to actually upload the sequences,” Diel said. “And I think everybody’s struggling with staffing.”

Across the state, about one in every seven positive COVID-19 tests is sent to a lab to be screened for variants. But some counties, like Tompkins, are able to screen nearly all of their positive tests. That’s because Diel’s lab is working with local hospitals and the county health department to screen positive test samples.

“We have been sequencing quite a few [positive COVID-19 samples],” Diel said. “I would say probably about 80 percent.”

Other counties, like Broome, primarily send their samples to the state lab at Wadsworth, which is able to check about 100 samples a day for variants. New York has three other labs across the state that are able to screen for variants, including at University of Buffalo and University of Rochester. 

Diel said it is important for people to continue protecting themselves by getting their COVID-19 vaccine or boosters because fewer cases means fewer new mutations.