PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States are tested for coronavirus every day.
Those samples are typically collected at hospitals, clinics and pharmacies and shipped off to a nearby lab for results. Allegheny Health Network’s core lab on the North Side processes the vast majority of the network’s tests.
It’s equipped to process around 800 tests per day, but that rate is the result of several changes that started in March.
“Quite a lot is different,” said Dr. Kym Gyure, director of anatomic pathology at Allegheny Health Network.
Gyure says when the pandemic first started, management had to react quickly to bring the lab up to speed.
“We basically had to bring in all of the new instrumentation for the COVID testing because none of the instruments we had were able to perform them,” she said.
With five new instruments in the lab that can provide test results, the processing is now a much more routine operation. It’s essentially three steps: intake, dilution and placing the samples in an instrument to get results.
Dr. Kelly Stefano, director of microbiology with AHN, provided an exclusive tour of the lab to KDKA and said as the samples come in, they are prioritized by urgency.
For example, tests coming from the ICU are processed immediately. A lab worker then opens the samples at another station.
“We come back here to what’s called a biosafety cabinet, where we can open the specimen safely,” Stefano said. “We go ahead and make a dilution of each sample.”
From there, the samples go to one of five instruments in the lab for results. One of their main instruments can process about 94 samples every three hours.
“It gets loaded on one side of the instrument and about three hours later, the results would come out,” Stefano said.
The instrument presents the results of each test in a spreadsheet-like format on a screen. Each patient’s name is replaced with a number, positive results are highlighted in red.
Stefano says results are reviewed, sent across the network’s interfaces, printed, and provided to the doctor who ordered the tests. From intake to sending test results to doctors, the entire process typically takes six to 12 hours.
“Usually within 12 hours, the physician has the information,” Stefano said. “It may take him or her another day or so to make some of the phone calls that aren’t critical.”
According to Allegheny Health Network’s website, patients should expect to be notified of their results within three to five days of being tested. Dr. Stefano says there is still a high demand for testing supplies, which can sometimes limit the number of tests they can actually do.