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St. Luke’s laboratories begin COVID-19 testing in-house, slashing turnaround times

Lab assistants Dani Henscheid, front, and Elizabeth Heller make sterile kits under a negative pressure hood.
By Sandra Forester, News and Community
April 17, 2020
Laboratory supervisor Erin Pepple calls providers with critical results.

Gathering specimens and shipping them to labs outside the health system or the state is an arduous, time-consuming process in the best of times.

During a pandemic, the stakes are exponentially higher.

Here’s the process: Sterile collection kits are distributed to testing locations. Patient information is matched to the specimens. Preparing them for the Idaho State Laboratory requires a certain packaging; specimens are frozen when going to labs out of state.

When results come back, they are verified to confirm patient information matches, scanned and entered into the medical record. Then the lab contacts the provider or facility that will share results with the patients.

In the past few months, during the novel coronavirus threat, staff at St. Luke’s laboratories have worked 24/7 to process specimens and supply the drive-up tents and hospitals. Teams have spent hours on the weekends, assembling specimen testing kits for the drive-by tents.

A Supply Chain representative helps courier Joel Castro load up testing supplies for the drive-by tents around the Treasure Valley.

St. Luke’s Supply Chain has assisted with ordering and distribution; Integrated Health Technologies quickly built interfaces and tests to streamline the flow of information in St. Luke’s electronic medical record. Medical lab scientists systemwide worked long hours, including evenings and weekends, to enter results in the medical charts.

“Clinical laboratory scientists and other ancillary staff in the laboratory are the unsung heroes during this pandemic,” St. Luke’s Laboratory Director Kola Ogunrinola said. “Shortage of testing and mostly testing kits are real and painful obstacles that we faced as the virus spread throughout the nation.

“As a nimble operation, we quickly innovate, simplify, collaborate and work long hours to get our job done, and this time is not an exception,” he said. “We gave it all to our customers and providers who depend on us.”

Maureen Tacke, laboratory program manager, agreed.

Team members of St. Luke’s Core Lab in Boise assemble kits for the drive-by tents across the health system.

Chris Taylor, a medical lab scientist, enters specimen results that have come back from outside laboratories.

“It’s just been amazing, the collaboration.”

Staff partnered internally and beyond the health system to improve processes and systems to get test results returned as quickly as possible. By April 1, almost 7,000 specimens had been sent to out, with more than 5,000 results entered into charts – a big jump over the 3,000 specimens sent off to other labs as of March 21 with about 450 results entered.

“One of our major victories is we’ve been able to close the gap of results, trying to get patients’ results so providers could move on and do their job,” Laboratory Program Manager Oby Ozumba said.

Until recently, St. Luke’s has had to send all specimens to external labs, such as the Idaho State Lab or to the University of Washington Medical Center or the University of Utah, which average about a three-day turnaround; St. Luke’s stopped sending specimens to the large commercial labs that took more than eight days to return results.

Tammi Campbell, lab assistant, scans COVID-19 results into medical charts.

St. Luke’s laboratories say they can turn results even faster, in about two to four hours, once they’re able to fully utilize the instruments they have to test for COVID-19.

St. Luke’s has four systems that can process COVID-19 specimens, but until a few weeks ago, the health system could not purchase reagent, a substance with a short shelf life that is key to the testing. During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Defense has limited which organizations can have reagent, based on location, population, need and hot spots.

St. Luke’s Core Laboratory recently received enough reagent to test two of its instruments and begin running COVID-19 tests. Labs in Boise, Twin Falls, Ketchum, Meridian, Nampa and McCall also have instruments up and running patient tests. By Monday, April 20, the labs hope to stop sending tests to outside labs. The labs’ capacity will surpass 1,700 tests a day all together in May.

“We have made significant progress in transitioning from 100% of COVID-19 tests sent out while developing our internal capacity,” Ogunrinola said. “We are scaling up ...

“I know we will win this battle!”

About The Author

Sandra Forester works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.

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