JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The 673d Medical Group Laboratory team greatly increased its capabilities to test for the COVID-19 virus and other respiratory infections when it acquired two high-capacity analyzers — one in November 2021, and another in January 2022.
One of the analyzers can test 1,152 samples a day, and is the only analyzer of this capacity in the Department of Defense. Serving a population of 159,000 people, which includes Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs beneficiaries, the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
(JBER) hospital and lab team care for a significant population of Alaska.
“With the new machines, our daily throughput for processing samples has increased significantly,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Max-Eddie Ibarrientos, the 673d Medical Support Squadron (MDSS) Microbiology Section noncommissioned officer in charge. “We used to only be able to run 408 samples a day. But now we're able to run a maximum of 1,344 samples a day. If you do the math, that's roughly a 229% increase in our capabilities.
“Our biggest issue with our former testing capabilities is we weren’t exactly well-equipped to handle any surges,” Ibarrientos continued. “Let's say a wave as big as omicron hit us when we were only able to test 408 samples a day; that would be super difficult for not only these analyzers, but for the personnel that we have here in the lab. Now that we are able to test more samples on a daily basis, we are better equipped to support these sudden surges — knock on wood they don’t actually happen.”
With molecular testing, a sample of body fluid, from a nasal swab for example, is analyzed for certain molecules and results can be ready in approximately 45 minutes. The two new analyzers in the JBER lab can run molecular tests for up to 22 respiratory pathogens to include the COVID-19 virus, influenza A, influenza B and respiratory syncytial virus. Additionally, these analyzers can detect hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, available and efficient testing has been paramount in mitigating the spread of the disease. Not only does it let people know if they have the disease and should be quarantined or not, it also provides important information for decision makers on how fast the disease is spreading and where.
“With these machines, we’re better prepared if there is a new virus or something in the future,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Karla Workman, the 673d MDSS Laboratory Flight commander. “As soon as testing capabilities come on board, we'll be able to put them on these analyzers to prepare for a possible pandemic. We hope not, but you never know what's going to happen.”
In addition to the two analyzers, the JBER lab team adapted their shifts to continue running COVID-19 tests into the evening, Workman said. This allowed them to accommodate the surge in people requiring testing in January when the omicron variant arrived, while also preventing the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus among personnel working in the lab.
The evening shift continues to run samples collected by the day shift through the analyzers, so results are ready within 24 hours. The quick turnaround time with results keeps installation leadership aware of trends and assists them in making informed decisions on COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“It also allows us to support our PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] missions,” Workman said. “When people travel to Japan or Korea, for example, they have to have molecular testing. These instruments give us the capability to get people tested quickly and get them out to these deployments, temporary duties or exercises.”
In early 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, the JBER lab didn’t have the capability to test for the COVID-19 virus like it does now. Some tests had to be sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and results could take 10 to 15 days.
“We had a huge, huge backlog because they had to go so far,” Workman explained. “At the beginning it was also a struggle just trying to get all the supplies and swabs. Now we have additional vendors and supply chains to go through. We also keep more supplies on hand here in the laboratory and also in Logistics downstairs.”
With supplies secured and the two high-capacity analyzers, the JBER lab team is able to process all COVID-19 virus tests here on site, even during the surge in January from the omicron variant.
“During the beginning of January, some days we would be testing hundreds of samples,” Ibarrientos said. “We were running the samples from 7 a.m. when the respiratory clinic opens until close to 8 p.m. the same evening. They busted their butts to try to get all the tests done within a 24-hour time period. There was a lot of teamwork that went into that and I'm definitely proud of these guys for doing it.”
In addition to maintaining operations in the lab, JBER’s lab technicians also stepped up to alleviate strain on the hospital’s nurses.
“We assisted nurses by doing blood draws to take that off their plate during morning rounds,” Workman said. “We also continued with our mission inspections to maintain our accreditation with the College of American Pathologists. Not only are we taking care of our patients who are taking care of our mission, but the lab team also made sure we got our two year accreditation inspection completed as well.”