This was reported last week, but with all the other stories going on I am just now getting to it. Dr. Holmes Morton is best known as the founder of the Clinic for Special Children in Lancaster County, treating children with genetic disorders, primarily from the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Dr. Morton has since opened a new clinic in Belleville, PA, which is smack dab in the unique Big Valley community of Mifflin County. Multiple news outlets report that the Central Pennsylvania Clinic will be offering drive-thru testing meant for both buggy and car drivers:

But a tiny clinic in central Pennsylvania, tucked in amongst neat farmsteads covering the anthracite hills, is setting up drive-through testing that’s meant to accommodate a horse and buggy as well as cars. The Central Pennsylvania Clinic caters to the local Amish and Mennonite communities, and its founder, D. Holmes Morton, wants to ensure that rapid COVID-19 testing isn’t limited to those with motorized vehicles.

“We already have a relationship with this community, and testing is an opportunity to raise awareness about the need for isolation of vulnerable individuals,” Morton told Motherboard.

Morton is particularly concerned about asymptomatic carriers of the virus. He feels this is especially important for the Plain population:

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.”

The other key part of the story is that Morton’s collaborator, Juniata College professor Regina Lamendella, has developed a new and improved 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.”

byler amish buggy

The test takes just 19 hours, as opposed to one week, and this is key:

“It doesn’t do clinicians any good knowing seven days after that their patient is Covid positive or negative. It helps to know as quickly as possible so you can quarantine the right individuals,” Lamendella said.

This all sounds like good news. One thing that is missing from the reporting is how successful they’ve been in convincing Amish to get tested.

As the area is home to some of the plainer and more isolated churches, that might take more work than it would in some of the other communities we’ve been covering.

That said, I know Dr. Morton was well-respected and appreciated by Amish for his work in Lancaster County, and I would expect things are similar in Belleville. Here’s a photo by reader Jerry, of local Amish listening to Dr. Morton speak at a benefit auction in the community:

There’s one probable reason for little news as far as Amish testing – it looks like it is just starting up.

The clinic administered around 65 tests its first week, but not much word on who were the recipients. The lab is set up to perform several hundred tests each day.

Image credit: three Amishmen walking – Jerry

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