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Alaska Native Medical Center uses several machines to test for COVID-19

Published: Nov. 7, 2020 at 8:21 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Ever since April, the testing lab at the Alaska Native Medical Center has gotten a little cramped, according to Laboratory Medical Director Dr. James Tiesinga. That’s because, during the pandemic, they’ve been buying a lot of equipment to ramp up testing for COVID-19.

Right now, there are four distinct machines they use for testing in different situations. Each comes with different benefits and shortcomings based on how many or how fast patients need to be tested.

Tiesinga said all of them are running throughout the day add up to about 2,500 tests. Even by the standards of giant hospitals in the Lower 48, that’s a lot of tests. In fact, those numbers contribute to Alaska being second only to New York in tests per 100,000 residents according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first analyzer they acquired back in April was the Cepheid GeneXpert. Tiesinga said this machine is sensitive enough to provide very accurate results in a short time. He said it’s capable of 16 tests every 45 minutes.

The GeneXpert is fast and accurate, but Tiesinga said it doesn’t have the volume to keep up with as many tests they run these days. However, the big problem is getting the chemicals, or reagents, to make it work.

“We stopped using this equipment for several months during the pandemic because we simply could not get reagents for it,” he said. “All of the reagents were going to New York or the southeast or other hot zones.”

The same day they got the GeneXpert, they also got 50 much smaller analyzers called Abbott ID NOW.

The ID NOW is the fastest method they have for testing for the virus. They can get the results of one test in about 15 minutes. Since they only run one test at a time, Tiesinga said they aren’t ideal for large masses of tests like are necessary now.

However, their speed is great for other situations like employee exposure. When health care workers are exposed, they have to get tested, which can take time. These machines help them know if they have COVID-19 faster so they can react appropriately. Additionally, they can use these to quickly test someone in the hospital who is there for something like an injury or other form of trauma.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the ID NOW is their portability. Tiesinga said the 50 units they initially got were immediately sent out to rural communities. They’re a better fit for places with fewer people to test.

To really get those capacity numbers up, ANMC purchased an Abbott m2000 RealTime System in April that was operating by May. Tiesinga said this machine was able to process 500 tests in a day. It’s bigger, bulkier, more expensive, and can take a while to get results, but the results are very accurate and it can go through a lot of tests at once.

“In fact, we had such success with this analyzer that my tribal leadership including Andy Tuber had the foresight to place an order for a second m2000 analyzer,” Tiesinga said.

The final machine they use is a Panther analyzer. Tiesinga said they had the machine before the pandemic to run other tests, but an upgrade was released that made it able to process COVID-19 results. This is the new flagship testing machine according to Tiesinga at 700 tests a day.

“They are superior in almost every single way,” he said.

Now, they have another addition to the machine to make them even more efficient: a Fusion Module.

This doesn’t increase the capacity or speed, but it makes it so the machine can run tests for other diseases like the flu on top of COVID-19. While entering the flu season, ANMC and other hospitals are going to begin testing for the flu at the same time as COVID-19 to react accordingly and avoid confusion in hospitals.

With all these different methods, Tiesinga said they are prepared to keep constantly testing as needed.

It’s important to note that only one of the machines, the GeneXpert, has reagents that are hard to come by. Tiesinga said they spend a lot of time ordering the right chemicals to keep the other machines running.

He said multiple chemical storage closets that they’re keeping them in used to be people’s offices. Right now, they are in the process of expanding the lab to reorganize all the machines and the chemicals they use to make them work.

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