Hospital laboratory teams lead the way

Posted on in Research

Laboratory teams at South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust were amongst the first in the country to develop round the clock on-site testing for COVID-19.

The microbiology team in the virology labs at The James Cook University Hospital

The microbiology team in the virology labs at The James Cook University Hospital

Dedicated clinicians from the trust’s microbiology team volunteered to change their working hours to quickly set up a service to test patient and staff swabs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At one point the virology lab at The James Cook University Hospital was testing more than 300 samples a day, with the majority of results available in six hours.

Sandra Gittins, virology lead biomedical scientist, said: “Our 11 specially trained virology staff now work shifts from 6am until midnight. Biomedical scientists and healthcare science support workers within the bacteriology department then help us out overnight.

“I did not have to ask them to work the different shift patterns, they volunteered. It’s been an amazing response.”

Therapeutic care volunteers help transport samples from wards to the labs and university students have also been providing support, assisting with specimen preparation prior to the testing process.

“The teams have come together like one big family. I’m extremely proud of them,” added Sandra.
The James Cook University Hospital was among the first in the region, second only to the public health laboratories in Newcastle, to begin providing diagnostic testing for patients suspected of being infected with COVID-19.

Within just seven days the team had set up a fully operational 24/7 testing and reporting service.
Karl Hubbert, operations director, said: “The team regularly test for respiratory diseases and other outbreak scenarios which meant they were fully prepared for COVID-19.

“The laboratory initially started testing approximately 30 samples per day and soon expanded this from 400 samples in the first week to over 1,500 samples in subsequent weeks.

“The laboratory staff have worked continuously to improve turnaround times which have decreased from over 24 hours to less than six hours.

“This has only been possible due to the dedicated commitment of the biomedical scientists and scientific laboratory support worker staff groups who, like other staff groups across the trust, have gone over and beyond their duties often staying late, working flexibly and undertaking additional shifts to ensure results are always turned around as quickly as possible.

“Preparing samples, analysing them and looking at test results for coronavirus has become one of the main parts of their day, but the work they do testing for the disease is not too dissimilar to what they have always done throughout their careers.

“The ability to test for COVID-19 in-house with timely results has meant that our patients have been able to begin treatment more quickly; this is also really important for the safety of our nurses, doctors and other frontline staff in helping with infection prevention and control and reducing the spread of this disease.”

Any spare capacity has been used to support testing at other local hospitals and care homes and the team will soon start to provide some community testing support as well.

Karl added: “Every member of the team is sharing the load, and they are doing it with a smile on their face. I am incredibly proud and thankful to be part of this magnificent team.”

The microbiology team in the virology labs at The James Cook University Hospital

The testing process

Testing for the presence of COVID-19 has to be done by specialist, skilled staff in a fully equipped and accredited laboratory. It starts with a swab sample taken from deep at the back of the throat or nostril.

This is sent to a virology laboratory where a biomedical scientist deactivates it in a safety cabinet (making it safe to work with). They then prepare it for RNA extraction – this occurs in an automated machine. Once the RNA genome of the virus is extracted, the biomedical scientist prepares it for real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

PCR testing detects the RNA genome of COVID-19 and copies it into DNA. It then multiplies and measures that DNA – indicating the amount of virus RNA present in the original sample. A report is prepared by a biomedical scientist monitoring in real time. Depending on the time samples arrive in the laboratory, the capacity of the machinery, the whole process takes around six hours to complete.