A once-empty exhibition hall at the Vancouver Convention Centre is now bustling with laboratory clerks and assistants. From 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day, they’re hard at work in-taking COVID-19 samples collected all over the Lower Mainland, processing them into the system and sending them back out to laboratories to be analyzed.
This new site, built in record time thanks to the collaboration and hard work of Provincial Lab Medicine Services which includes staff from health authorities across the Lower Mainland, is a key part of B.C.’s strategy to ensure COVID-19 test results are processed quickly so contract tracers can do their work and stop chains of transmission.
Pictured from left to right: Pam Ramsay, Dr. David Schaeffer, and Melinda Carrier
The idea for the site came about in the summer, as B.C.’s lab community was working towards the goal of ramping up capacity to be able to do 20,000 COVID-19 tests a day. It was a tall order.
“When you think about 20,000 tests a day that’s thousands more tests a day than we’ve ever done in the province,” says Pam Ramsay, Executive Director, Lower Mainland Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at PHSA.
As the daily volumes increased, Lab leaders recognized the accessioning, or intake process for COVID-19 samples was creating a bottleneck. Hiring more staff to speed up this work presented a challenge because intake usually happens inside testing labs, which have very limited space and there was just not enough room in the existing labs to address this volume growth. The Convention Centre, sitting mostly empty with in-person events cancelled, presented an ideal location for large numbers of staff to be able to work together safely. A business case was developed and quickly approved.
“In the beginning of the October we took possession of this space and then we had people working here by the end of October,” Dr. David Schaeffer, Regional Medical Director, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Vancouver Coastal Health. “It was light speed and it’s a demonstration of what can happen if we all work together for a common goal.”
Staff at the centralized accessioning site first label samples, then ensure they’re entered into the electronic system correctly, and prepare them based on the exact specifications of the lab where they will be analyzed. When samples arrive at the testing labs, they are “machine-ready,” meaning they can put into the analyzers and testing can begin almost immediately.
The centralized site also helps ensure that samples are directed to labs that have the most capacity to test them.
“It’s almost like air traffic control,” Pam explains. “At any given time, we know what’s going on at all of the testing labs in the Lower Mainland and if we see a testing lab is very busy we can say, ‘Hold the presses. Time out.’ We can take those samples and move them to another lab that does have capacity.”
Right now, the site handles about 2500 samples a day with approximately 40 staff. There’s enough space for 75 people and there are plans to do additional hiring. If needed, the site could potentially run 24 hours a day and take samples from all over B.C.
Many of the people who work at the site are new to the health care system, and their commitment and enthusiasm is key to the site’s success.
“The people here come from a variety of backgrounds,” says site supervisor Melinda Carrier. “Some are recent university graduates who have studied laboratory medicine and are now working in an actual lab environment for the first time. Others are people who worked in retail and lost their jobs as part of the pandemic. There’s also a number of people here who wanted to come and be involved in the pandemic response.”
Laboratory assistant Michelle Jun, left.
Michelle Jun graduated from UBC in May with a bachelor in medical laboratory sciences. In the midst of a pandemic, with many research labs closed, finding a job was challenging.
“I saw this posting and it was very relevant to my undergraduate experience,” she says. “Also because of COVID-19, I didn’t have anything to do and I wanted to help out.”
Melinda says it’s been uplifting to see people with diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to help with the pandemic response. “We’ve got a very engaged, really eager and motivated group of people here,” she says.
Pam agrees that this innovative site wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of staff across many areas of the health care system.
“This was truly a joint effort,” she says “It really took input from all of the health authorities in the Lower Mainland to bring their best expertise and it took input from both the technical staff, the medical staff as well as the leadership to realize what we see here today.”