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St. Vincent lab techs in Billings creating sample components to test for COVID-19

Posted at 6:22 PM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-24 16:00:39-04

BILLINGS — While testing for COVID-19 remains in high demand but supplies are short, laboratory professionals with St. Vincent Healthcare are embarking on an innovative way to create their own testing sample components.

Lab techs and pathologists saw early on how the shortage in testing supplies was impacting patients and the Billings community.

“We obviously have a lot of issues with the availability of testing. That’s been widespread, you know, all over the news,” said Dr. Angela Durden, director of the medical lab at St. Vincent.

She says they knew they had to come together to make the transport fluid from a CDC recipe, coming out of the lab specific to the viral transport media.

“It's really nice to see that Montana and the residents of Montana still have a lot of pride in doing things ourselves,” Durden said. “We’ve at least been able to alleviate some of the stress of that by being able to make certain components of the test kit.”

Here’s how:

When a nasal swab is collected from a patient for COVID-19, it's placed in a vial of fluid for transport so the virus doesn’t dry up.

“Instead of waiting for the supply to catch up with demand, we kind of went back to the textbooks that we all learned when we were training for this career,” said Durden.

The federal government was only handing out roughly 300 of this transport fluid a month, and St. Vincent is now making a batch of 3,000 a month because lab techs were able to put their heads together and find a recipe to do so.

“We started March 31 was our first batch,” said Edie Gonitzke, the administrator of the lab. “It was kind of like a cookbook recipe that the CDC gave us, so it told us what volumes and ratios to design it. So it was easier than you would think, but if we would have had to come up with it ourselves it would have taken a lot more chemistry and maneuvering and using our brains to try and get the calculations right.

The best part, according to Durden, is it's helping contribute to the testing demand locally.

“So that we can at least get patients through the tent and have them be able to readily access testing and then from there we can determine where the tests need to be sent to get a rapid turnaround and get patients the care that they need,” she said.

And now the Billings location of SCL Health, which owns St. Vincent, is helping to supply all of its eight hospital locations around Montana and Colorado with these viral transport vials.

Because on the federal level, the demand remains high.

“As they ramp up, they’ll get more, but they just have to ration because nationwide the manufacturers have definitely been overloaded for the need for this viral media,” said Gonitzke.

The samples from Billings are then sent to a healthcare facility in Denver to test for COVID-19, according to Durden. She says the fluid in the vial keeps the sample good to get a reliable results.

It's another way, she points out, that Billings patients are getting a quicker and more tailored kind of care.

This week also marks National Medical Lab Professionals Week and those with St. Vincent Healthcare also say, as always, their lab techs play a critical role in medical care. But with this innovative response to the virus, they’re especially vital in the fight.