Nova Scotia

How Nova Scotia's COVID-19 lab more than tripled its testing capacity

Nova Scotia's COVID-19 testing lab has increased its 24-hour capacity from 200-250 tests to 800 tests, and there's more room for growth.

'They’re turning around tests at an incredibly fast rate,' says lab manager

The Nova Scotia Health Authority's lab went from being able to process up to 250 tests a day to more than 800, and has room for further increases. (David Blomme/NSHA)

A rapid training process and assembly line approach have allowed the QEII Health Sciences Centre microbiology lab in Halifax to more than triple its COVID-19 testing capacity in recent days.

In the early days focusing on the pandemic, the lab was averaging between 200 and 250 tests a day, more than what it would normally do in a full week. More recently, there have been days where the lab has processed 600 and 800 tests in the span of 24 hours.

The boom in capacity comes as Nova Scotia announced on Monday its first case of COVID-19 contracted via community spread.

Charles Heinstein, the lab's technical manager, said staff have completely changed the lab's approach.

They've moved to more of an assembly line-style approach where groups of people focus on specific parts of the process, beginning with the pre-analytical work of receiving, inspecting and logging the samples on through to eventually having them processed and getting results.

The lab has also brought in more people from other labs to help with the volume, in some cases training them for a specific task so they can quickly integrate into the workflow.

"That way we can keep the maximum amount of capacity from each of those pieces to turn around and end up with 800 tests in a day or 600 in a day when previously we weren't even near that," said Heinstein.

As capacity at the lab grows, he said the goal is to continue turnaround within 24 hours. And because the lab isn't running around the clock yet, there's more room for growth.

Backshift coming

The lab has been preparing to add a daily backshift, which will begin on Saturday and run from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next day.

"We've taken our old schedule that used to exist and we've pretty much torn it up and recreated a whole new schedule," said Heinstein.

Charles Heinstein is the technical manager of microbiology for the Nova Scotia Health Authority. (David Blomme/NSHA)

It will also allow people working in the lab to get rest days, something Heinstein said would help re-energize them when they return to work and help the lab sustain the record volumes it's handling.

The additional shift also helps the lab address the limitations that come with the instruments. Heinstein referred to a device called an extractor as an example.

"You can only put a limited number of samples on each extractor that you have and those extractors take an hour-and-a-half to two hours to cycle through all the samples that are on it," he said.

The same is true as the samples move through the testing process to other instruments.

Staff at the lab have risen to the occasion in the face of an unprecedented challenge, said Heinstein.

"I think they definitely deserve some recognition because this is a pretty stressful environment to work in right now, but they're smiling and they're plugging away at things and they're turning around tests at an incredibly fast rate.

"It's amazing to see."