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Two volunteers at a table assembling PCR kits
A small but mighty team of Hamilton Health Sciences volunteers are needed to assemble the PCR kits that are used throughout Hamilton’s hospitals to test for COVID-19.
January 26, 2023

Volunteers assemble 10,000 COVID testing kits and counting

As COVID-19 continues to circulate in our community, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is required to follow ministry guidelines to test some staff and patients with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Currently PCR tests are used if staff and physicians have been exposed but don’t have symptoms (there is a different process if they have symptoms) and if patients are suspected of having COVID.

What many may not realize is the amount of work that goes into ensuring our staff have PCR kits on hand. This has now been made possible by HHS volunteers.

“This is such a great group of reliable volunteers. Because of them, we’ve had no problem keeping up with the lab’s demand.”

Assembling kits

The Hamilton Regional Laboratory Medicine Program (HRLMP), a partnership between HHS and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (SJHH), is responsible for all COVID testing from hospitals and assessment centres in Hamilton and several other facilities in Southern Ontario. The supplies needed for a PCR kit are sent to HRLMP from the ministry. But these supplies are sent in bulk by item type.

volunteer at table putting nasal swab into bio hazard bag

HHS volunteer Mike Holinaty is an instrumental member of the team that assembles PCR kits.

A PCR kit consists of a nasal swab and test tube within a bio hazard bag and a label on the bag. Plus, kits that will be used for staff testing also include a requisition form and instruction sheet. Since each of these elements arrive to the lab separately, they need to be assembled. Even the label needs to be added to the bag.

While assembling these kits isn’t a difficult task, the challenge is that the lab needs to have at least 3,000 kits on hand per week. While they may not use that many every week, they need to be prepared for any sudden increases in COVID cases.

Stephanie Reid

Stephanie Reid, HRLMP supply chain & equipment coordinator

Throughout the pandemic, the lab relied on their own staff, including administrative staff and screeners, to assemble these kits. But last summer, screeners were no longer needed in the hospitals so the lab team struggled to keep up with demand.

“It got to the point that I was assembling kits in the evening from my living room just to make sure we had enough,” says Stephanie Reid, HRLMP supply chain & equipment coordinator.

Keeping up with demand

That’s when Reid reached out to the HHS Volunteer Resources team.

“Despite it being a simple task, it has a big impact on the hospital’s operations,” says Reid. “I knew I needed some consistent help and was hoping it could come from the volunteers.”

volunteer putting nasal swap into a bio hazard bag

Margaret Tarbutt regularly assembles PCR kits in between the days she volunteers at HHS’ St. Peter’s Hospital.

While in-person volunteer programming had been paused throughout the pandemic, volunteers had slowly started returning to HHS in spring 2022.

“When Stephanie reached out in the summer, we knew we could help as we had many volunteers eager to return,” says Kim Dungavel, volunteer resources coordinator.

So in September, volunteers took over assembling PCR kits for HRLMP to deliver across all of Hamilton’s hospitals. It took 15 volunteers to manage the initial demand. Now, there’s a smaller group consisting of volunteers Mike Holinaty, Penny Cormier, Margaret Tarbutt, Marie Neath and Murry Neath who regularly handle the task. Plus, there’s the occasional help from high school students who are part of the student volunteer program.

“This is such a great group of reliable volunteers. Because of them, we’ve had no problem keeping up with the lab’s demand,” says Dungavel.

10,000 kits and counting

PCR kits that have been recently assembled

Once HHS volunteers assemble the PCR kits they are sent to the HRLMP lab to be distributed across all of Hamilton’s hospitals.

Demand for PCR kits across Hamilton’s hospitals continues to be steady, especially with the surge of viral illness this fall as these kits can also be used to test for influenza A and B, as well as RSV. So, it’s no surprise to hear that there has been higher demand by the McMaster Children’s Hospital Emergency Department as flu season has been especially challenging for kids this year.

To date, volunteers have assembled well over 10,000 kits and currently average 1,000 per week now that the lab has a steady supply on hand.

“I’m so grateful to the volunteers for helping make sure our hospitals have the supplies they need,” says Reid.

While volunteers are back at HHS, some programs are still unable to resume due to the pandemic. So, Volunteer Resources encourages staff to reach out if they need help, as Reid did, since they have many volunteers ready and waiting to lend a hand.