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A Medical Milestone: Laboratories process more than One Million COVID tests results

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Intermountain Healthcare has reached a unique COVID-related medical milestone: the health system just surpassed more than one million COVID-19 test results processed – a milestone reached nearly a year after the virus was identified in the United States.

“This milestone highlights the important role laboratories have played in combating COVID-19 and keeping the public safe,” said Karen Brownell, assistant vice president of laboratory services at Intermountain Healthcare.

“I’m so proud of what our caregivers have accomplished,” said Brownell. “From our curbside caregivers who collected samples in triple-digit heat and the freezing cold to our lab caregivers and scientists across the Intermountain Healthcare system who process samples 24 hours a day, we’ve met the challenge head-on to serve the community.”

COVID-19 tests are processed at Intermountain’s Central Laboratory on the campus of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and at Intermountain hospital laboratories throughout the state.

Intermountain Laboratory Services completed the one-millionth COVID test result on Jan. 28.

Currently, the Intermountain Central Lab can perform more than 7,000 tests per day, and more than 90 percent have results within 24 hours. It was a different story back on March 13, 2020, when the lab began processing the first COVID-19 tests that arrived to be completed.

On that first day, the laboratory team performed 14 tests. By mid-week, they were up to 204 tests a day. Initially, a lack of available testing supplies and equipment made it difficult to expand the lab’s capacity. Every time different supplies or new tests were introduced, laboratory clinicians had to develop new rigorous processes to ensure accuracy before it could be used.

Bert Lopansri, MD, associate medical director for infectious diseases and medical director for microbiology for Intermountain Healthcare, says that in his many years of medicine he’s never seen such stress on supply chains across the globe as the COVID-19 pandemic created in 2020.

“The demand for supplies worldwide was unprecedented and it hindered our ability to ramp up testing,” said Dr. Lopansri. “Thanks to our partnerships with the state lab and ARUP Laboratories we worked together to share supplies and ensure we could process samples to meet the needs of the community.”

Early in the pandemic the Intermountain Central Lab even worked with the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District to secure the necessary equipment to process even more COVID tests.

The lab tests Intermountain uses have changed four times throughout the pandemic as more options have become available and in greater supply.

Although the collection of samples has changed from nasopharyngeal swabs to saliva, in most cases, Intermountain Laboratory Services continues to preferentially use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests because they’re more accurate than antigen rapid tests.

Dr. Lopansri says even after the milestone of more than a million tests have been processed, test accuracy will always be the most important aspect of the team’s work.

“The results of a COVID-19 test don’t just have consequences for patients, but for everyone around them,” said Dr. Lopansri. “We don’t want patients to have a false sense of security based on negative results from less accurate tests when they may truly be infected. Our commitment is to the provide the highest quality, accurate test possible.”

Brownell says another reason for Intermountain’s testing success is that logistics were established early to set up 25 test sites throughout the state, with caregivers to collect samples and a courier system to expedite delivery to the Intermountain Central Lab.

Sterling Bennett, MD, medical director of the Intermountain Central Laboratory, says developing and operationalizing the COVID-19 testing process is one of the biggest medical undertakings he’s ever seen in his 30-year medical career.

Dr. Bennett warns people to not get complacent now that there’s a good testing infrastructure in place and the initial COVID vaccines are being distributed.

“As a community we can’t test our way out of this pandemic,” said Dr. Bennett. “Even if our lab processed 10,000 tests a day and they all turned out to be negative, it wouldn’t stop the virus from spreading if people don’t take necessary precautions and then get infected again.”

“Testing gives all of us crucial information about who is currently infected but wearing a mask in public and social distancing is even more important to slowing the spread,” Dr. Bennett noted.

Although testing numbers remain high there isn’t the same shortage of supplies as there was early in the pandemic. This has allowed Intermountain to begin expanding rapid testing at all hospital emergency rooms where results normally take about 45 minutes, said Dr. Bennett.

For more information on COVID testing at Intermountain click here.

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