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Candy Rutherford sits at her desk in the regional lab, wearing a purple sweater
April 20, 2020

Regional virology lab expands to run 24/7 during Covid crisis

Candy Rutherford has worked for Hamilton Health Sciences for more than 45 years, including the last 20 as a technical specialist at the Hamilton Regional Laboratory Medicine Program virology lab. She worked through SARS and H1N1, and now she’s adding COVID-19 to her pandemic portfolio.

How does she stay motivated during a crisis like this?

“It’s what we do,” Rutherford says of the whole team. “That’s why we are in health care. There’s no other option.”

The Hamilton Regional Laboratory Medicine Program is one of the largest integrated laboratory medicine programs in Canada with more than 700 employees in various sites and lab specialties. Under normal circumstances, 15 Medical Lab Technologists and Medical Lab Assistants staff the virology lab, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. During the pandemic, the lab is operating around the clock. The HRLMP is affiliated with Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and McMaster University.

Testing across southern Ontario

The lab tests COVID-19 samples from hospitals in Hamilton, Burlington, Niagara, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, Markham, Uxbridge, and many more locations across southern Ontario.

On just three Polymerase Chain Reaction instruments, they’re running about 850 COVID-19 tests per 24 hours – that’s an average of more than one new result every two minutes, all day, every day.

And they haven’t stopped their regular work either, running tests related to cancer care, hepatitis, pre-natal care, HIV and more.

Fast is good but right is first

“It’s very fast-paced,” says Rutherford. “We never stop moving. As soon as one run is almost done, you’re setting up the next one. The machines are running all the time – they just never stop. Our main mandate is to do it right. Fast is next, but right is first. That’s our mantra.”

Before the testing could even start, there was an incredible workload just getting ready. Validating materials, designing tests, and just as importantly, planning for worker safety.

Ensuring worker safety

“The biggest thing was to make sure everyone in the lab is safe,” says Rutherford. “We all wear masks, because we don’t want to breathe on each other. There are more people than usual in the space.”

Deborah Johnson is the virology lab manager. She says they wouldn’t be where they are today without Rutherford’s contributions.

“Candy has been instrumental in designing and validating the test that is being run on our automated platform,” says Johnson. “She is incredibly dedicated and talented.”

Full team effort

A group of people dressed in masks and gowns stand separately from each other in the virology labThe regular staff has almost doubled, with registered lab technologists and lab assistants coming from other areas of the HRMLP to help out, along with some retirees who answered the call. Rutherford says she’s grateful for their assistance and finds the team is working like a well-oiled machine.

“They volunteered. We didn’t beat on their doors or anything – they just showed up.”

Johnson highlights the commitment of the entire team to serve hospitals and patients throughout the province.

“Our virology staff have stepped up to the challenge and have just been so dedicated and resilient throughout this difficult time,” she says.

April 19-25 is Medical Laboratory Professionals Week. Share on social media using #medlabthx