On any given day, the laboratory team at El Camino Health’s hospitals runs about 2,000-3,000 tests. A primary focus of their work is to help doctors diagnose patients by analyzing urine, blood and bodily fluid specimens to provide the necessary information to form a correct diagnosis and treat the patient appropriately. Getting quick and accurate results on those tests is critical.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the volume of tests performed dropped as elective surgeries were suspended with fewer patients coming into the hospitals. Only acutely ill patients were being admitted in addition to patients with COVID-19. However, new challenges emerged, and the laboratory team came up with creative solutions to address the task of testing for COVID-19 as rapidly as possible.
“At first, we were sending our COVID-19 specimens to another lab for testing and it could take up to 36 hours to find out if it was positive or negative," explains Laura Gutierrez, laboratory director. "In the meantime, the hospital was doing everything it could to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and until we knew whether someone was positive or negative, the staff caring for that patient had to take extra measures to protect themselves from the virus. Reducing the response time on those COVID-19 tests was a critical element in conserving PPE.”
Keeping patients waiting that long to find out whether they test positive for COVID-19 was especially difficult for the patients. So, the lab team pushed to get results more quickly and worked to get the testing done in-house because they knew they could shorten the time to get results. In early April, El Camino Health hospitals started in-house testing and reduced the wait time for results to about 45 minutes.
“Our nurses felt protected because they knew early on whether they were dealing with a patient with COVID-19 and that made a huge difference,” adds Laura.
The main priority was to keep everyone safe and to act promptly under these unknown conditions. Information changed quickly and communication around PPE was as important for the phlebotomists as it was for the nursing staff. Handling the specimens safely and making sure the phlebotomists taking blood, as well as the nurses, were healthy at all times is always our priority.
Another challenge was brought to light with the transport media used when the specimen was collected. Transport media is a special formulation used to preserve the specimen. The recommended transport media was on backorder. The team researched options and when the FDA released guidance that saline could be used as a transport media, the team was able to make their own viral transport media.
“We had to be innovative and change our process whenever we hit a roadblock," explains Eduard Tesnado, laboratory manager. "The specimen had to go into a liquid media, and we simply couldn’t get it. We created an equivalent media using saline and that extended the collection of tests until the media was no longer on backorder.”
Today, when patients are admitted to a unit, the staff knows right away if they are caring for a patient with COVID-19. For the laboratory team, it is all about connecting those dots. According to Laura, the laboratory team plays a vital role in helping the hospitals get through the pandemic while keeping both our patients and employees safe.
Eduard adds that El Camino Health has always been there to provide a diagnosis for patients in our community. He adds, “We are here, we are ready, and we are always going to be here to support them.”