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Sonoma County aims to triple volume of coronavirus test processing with new technology

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Sonoma County’s public health laboratory has begun receiving equipment to reduce coronavirus test turnaround times and triple the number of tests processed daily by the lab to between 900 and 1,200, health officials said Thursday.

Meanwhile, late Thursday night county health officials reported 144 new virus infections, the highest single day total during the pandemic, to boost the county’s total COVID-19 cases over the 4,000 mark to 4,063.

The new test-processing equipment, paid for by the California Department of Public Health, also will sharply reduce the county’s reliance on state-funded virus testing sites in Petaluma and Santa Rosa that depend on national commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics to process local virus tests. The state is expected to close those sites statewide as early as September, officials said.

Quest and other commercial labs deluged with great demand nationwide have been dogged by virus testing backlogs that had caused some people in the county to wait as long as 10 or more days to learn if they’ve contracted COVID-19. Quest said Monday it has cut test-processing waits to two to three days.

Rachel Rees, director of the county’s public health lab, said the county is preparing to take on the virus test volume now being handled by the two local state-funded sites and process the tests with the new equipment, planning to work 24 hours a day seven days a week to process them.

The state testing sites in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, where residents have been going for several weeks for free virus tests, have the capacity to test more than 500 people a day. The public health lab now has the capacity to process between 300 and 400 tests daily.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said the newly acquired testing equipment gives the county more independence over local testing and the ability to keep turnaround times to under 72 hours. Anything greater than that is an impediment to area public health efforts to identify and stop the spread of the virus, she said.

Dr. Rees said the public health lab’s existing coronavirus testing process is the same one the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March. The new equipment is made by Massachussets-based PerkinElmer, a global life sciences and health care technology company.

Rees said the new equipment can process test specimens of about 94 patients in the same time the old hardware examines the specimens of 29 patients, making it much more efficient. She said the new equipment also features robotics technology that greatly reduces the amount of repetitive tasks performed by the lab’s microbiologists.

“It will really help out our microbiologists because they can get repetitive stress injuries” from the amount of transferring test liquid vials by hand during the diagnostic process.

Rees said the new test-processing equipment is coming in multiple shipments. The local public health lab already has received the key unit that extracts the genetic material from the virus in the processing. Another such unit is on the way.

She said the reagent kits, or chemicals necessary to run the tests, have also been received and are expected to be installed on Monday. The immediate benefit of operating the new equipment will be an increase in lab efficiency and less work for lab staff.

But the “flip side,” she said, is that dramatically increasing the virus test volume will require more workers at the public health lab.

“We do need more staffing, because when there's more specimens there's always more work,” Rees said.

The county has signed an employment contract with a staffing agency to provide four clinical lab scientists that will allow its lab to operate 24 hours daily. The first of the four lab scientists is scheduled to start working here Sept. 8.

Rees envisions the public health lab being able to ramp up to processing 900 to 1,200 virus tests a day after two of the four additional scientists start working with the new PerkinElmer equipment.

Currently, a small team of about a dozen professionals process the county’s highest-priority coronavirus tests in the public health lab, including tests from local contact tracing of people exposed to the virus, surveillance testing of individuals conducted during outbreaks or at places with great potential for transmission and other high-risk cases.

The team includes five microbiologists, three public health lab technicians and two staff members borrowed from the county’s environmental health division, many of them working 12- to 14-hour shifts to keep turnaround times to less than 72 hours.

“The microbiologists and everybody in the lab are working overtime and really doing their best to respond to the emergency,” Rees said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Massachusetts life sciences technology company that sold Sonoma County the new equipment to conduct a greater volume of virus tests. The company is PerkinElmer.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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