ABC4 Exclusive: An inside look into how COVID-19 samples are tested

Coronavirus Updates

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah (ABC4 News) – Pop up testing sites are the new normal across the United States and here in Utah, but what happens after your COVID-19 test is bagged up and you drive off?

To answer the question, the state health department gave ABC4 News unprecedented access to arguably the most important room in Utah right now.

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Some of the collected coronavirus samples are transported to the Utah Public Health Lab in Taylorsville, where they are first dropped off and recorded in the Specimen Receiving section. The patient’s demographics and specimen information are entered into the Lab Information System and given a number with a bar code to track testing and reporting.

The samples are then taken to the laboratory where it goes through extraction.

“The first thing is to break the virus and extract the RNA and that is done with instrumentation,” said Alessandro Rossi, Infectious Disease Scientist at the Utah Public Health Lab.

Once the virus’ genetic material is extracted, the specimen is taken to a different room for preparation.

“You don’t want contaminations so it needs to be prepared separately from the extraction room,” Rossi explained.

The final step is testing. Once the test is analyzed and scientists see which samples contain the virus and which samples don’t, the results are reported to the provider that submitted the specimen to the lab.

The Utah Public Health Lab can test 93 coronavirus samples at once, and overall the state of Utah has the ability to perform about 6,000 tests per day.

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“The Public Health Lab is about 15 percent of that,” said Robyn Atkinson-Dunn, Director of UPHL.

Atkinson-Dunn helps coordinate all of the testing statewide.

She says dealing with an unprecedented and historic pandemic was daunting.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Early on in the crisis there was mounting concern over a shortage of swabs.

“Supplies were almost non-existent,” said Atkinson-Dunn. “From the collection materials, to the swabs, and the medium the swabs need to go into, were almost non-existent. And then the test kits were also a problem as well.”

The director says labs are now all up to speed.

“We have over 300,000 swabs available in the state, which is much better off than we were before.”

In addition, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services is also working diligintly to ensure states have the needed testing supplies.

“Over the course of May and June, we will be getting close to 300,000 swabs from those areas,” Atkinson-Dunn said.

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 is the lab’s top priority, especially in communities hit hard by the deadly virus

“For example, the public health lab has provided testing for the Navajo Nation,” said Rossi.

“Our role is to really protect the public and to make sure the answers that we’re giving, influence public policy and do it in a way that makes sense and is reliable,” added Atkinson-Dunn.

When it comes to the fight against COVID-19, scientists that are working behind the scenes are often overlooked. But without these unsung heroes, none of the pieces that go into fighting a pandemic would fit together.

“This would not happen without the hard-working people, especially here at the Public Health Lab. Alessandro and his team – it wouldn’t happen without them,” Atkinson-Dunn said.

***Part two of this story will air Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. ABC4 News gets an exclusive look at the cutting edge technology being used to help slow the spread of the virus.

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