Hamilton regional lab “amps” up to deal with increased testing for COVID and other viruses
“The whole thing has been a vortex,” says Candy Rutherford, technical specialist in the Hamilton Regional Laboratory Medicine Program (HRLMP) and a 48-year employee at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS).
After 18 months and four waves, the lab is under tremendous stress, like much of the hospital. The virology lab, where Rutherford works, processes COVID-19 tests to confirm whether or not someone is infected with the virus. The lab has processed more than 700,000 tests from hospitals and assessment centres in Hamilton, across Ontario and even from outside the province.
A massive machine for massive demands
With the fourth wave approaching in July 2021, the HRLMP acquired a new, fully automated system called Amplitude that can process larger quantities of COVID-19 tests in a faster time. A total of six Amplitude systems were installed at various testing sites across Southern Ontario, including the public health labs in Toronto and London, Hospital for Sick Children, Trillium Health and our own Hamilton Regional Lab.
Along with COVID tests, the virology lab processes test results for a number of other viruses, including influenza A and B, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), rhinovirus (enterovirus), C-difficile, and others. The lab has processed just over 80,000 test results for these other viruses and bacteria between January 2020 and September 2021.
The new Amplitude system is being used alongside existing equipment to add to the testing capacity.
“The large batch size sets it apart from our other COVID-19 testing platforms and frees up some of the other equipment for running COVID-19 Variant of Concern tests and other virus tests,” says Deborah Johnson, manager of the microbiology lab at HHS. “With children back at school, we’re seeing a surge of test requests for other respiratory viruses such as RSV, rhino/enterovirus and influenza.”
Growing the team to battle the spread
The HRLMP is one of the largest integrated laboratory medicine programs in Canada with more than 700 employees in various sites and lab specialties. The lab is affiliated with Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and McMaster University.
Prior to the pandemic, 15 Medical Lab Technologists (MLTs) and Medical Lab Assistants (MLAs) staffed the virology lab, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The HRLMP has since brought on more than 40 MLTs and MLAs to work around the clock.
With the new Amplitude system came additional training for the team. The lab assistants place the samples into the system and lab technologists interpret and report the results, and determine if a positive sample is eligible for Variant of Concern (VOC) testing.
Samples that screen positive for a COVID-19 VOC in the virology lab are sent to the HRLMP genetics lab twice per week for further investigation. The HRLMP genetics lab – which is one of six in Ontario – has tested more than 3,000 COVID-19 VOC samples to date.
Accurate results as quickly as possible
“The success of getting all the additional equipment in the virology lab and getting patient results in a timely fashion was most rewarding,” says Linda Tweedle, interim manager of the HRLMP laboratory information systems team. “We pride ourselves on getting results out as quickly and accurately as possible.”
Once the HRLMP was selected as a testing site for the Amplitude system, staff had only a couple of weeks to implement a new test, train staff, purchase equipment and supplies and begin processing samples. “This was only possible thanks to a tremendous team effort from the technical staff in genetics and virology, as well as support from many other areas of HRLMP,” says Robyn White, senior genetic technologist in the genetics lab at HHS.
As the COVID-19 delta variant spreads and with flu season on the way, the HRLMP remains steadfast in its preparation.
“We’re ready,” says Rutherford.