Vt. health officials working overtime to process influx of test kits

Published: Mar. 10, 2020 at 4:50 PM EDT
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Hospitals and doctors' offices around the state are fielding dozens of calls from patients concerned they might have coronavirus. And local efforts to test are also ramping up. Our Cat Viglienzoni spoke with UVM infectious disease clinician Tim Lahey about how they suit up and administer the tests.

It starts with putting on an approved medical gown, an N95 respirator, a face mask, hand sanitizer, and gloves.

"This stylish look is to protect me from getting infected and also to prevent me from getting the bug on me in a way that we could transmit to someone else," Lahey said.

The UVM Medical Center is one of many places inundated with phone calls from Vermonters concerned they may have coronavirus. Dr. Lahey says call your health provider first. They'll tell you whether you need to get tested. And if they send you to a hosptial, call from your car to let them know you're there.

"You don't want to just show up because you don't know if they'll be ready for you," Lahey said.

Once ready with protective gear, an isolated room and a test, it's time to get to work. Inside the test kits, for either the coronavirus or the flu, there's a cotton swab that they'll use to swab the inside of your nose. They use another one on the inside of your mouth. The samples go into a vial and are sent to the Vermont Department of Health's lab in Colchester. At the lab, machines do DNA typing to identify the virus.

Microbiology program chief Cheryl Achilles says the results take about five hours to process. They are then sent out via fax or email. She said most people have an answer in 24 to 48 hours. "We try to get that out as fast as we can," Achilles said.

Their lab is working overtime -- often 12-hour shifts -- to get batches through. When they started testing March 3, they only had six specimens from three patients. Now, it's about 40 specimens for 20 patients per day.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Do you expect to get more?

Cheryl Achilles: We do, actually. We do.

But she says they have enough tests and are monitoring that capacity. And with their lab being the only one doing the testing in Vermont right now, she expects they will be busy for a while. "We always knew how to identify it, it's just a matter of where and when," Achilles said.

Any tests, once they're labeled a presumptive positive, are sent to the CDC for confirmation testing.

Hospitals, like the UVM Medical Center, are currently making plans for what happens if they see a large influx of patients.

"We're making sure we're ready for whatever happens. And that could mean it's just a busier day at the hospital, and we use our resources like we usually do. We're also ready to have a particular floor that's dedicated to COVID cases. We have thought about whether we have enough of various kinds of medical supplies. And the worse it is, the more the plans will be unusual," Dr. Lahey said.