What the QEII microbiology lab is doing to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19

As the pandemic starts to slow down in Nova Scotia, the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s microbiology lab in Halifax is ramping up preparations for a second wave of COVID-19

On Tuesday, the lab completed 353 COVID-19 tests, a much smaller number than the 1,500 tests a day the lab was processing in mid-April, said Charles Heinstein, the lab’s technical manager.

He said multiple preparations are being made for a second wave of COVID-19.

“What we’re looking at are two key things, one is staffing, so we want to be able to maintain staffing at a high level, but we also want to take this opportunity to increase our training level, and the other half that we’re planning for is supplies,” said Heinstein.

Heinstein said they are looking for more supply vendors and stockpiling enough supplies to handle 30 to 60 days of testing. He anticipates testing will go up during influenza season this fall.

Medical laboratory technologist Fred Li monitors operation of the Cobas 6800 instrument used in COVID-19 testing at the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s microbiology lab in Halifax. (Communications Nova Scotia)

As far as staff is concerned, Heinstein said the lab will take a “hot idle” approach. He expects staff will take some vacation time in the summer while others will start working on projects in the microbiology lab they had set aside during the pandemic. The idea is to be prepared at a moment’s notice to ramp up testing again.

The lab is also recruiting new lab technicians, particularly those just graduating from the Nova Scotia Community College.

How lab staff got ready for the first wave

Heinstein said to prepare for the first wave of COVID-19, more staff were hired or shifted from other parts of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, and the lab started running 24 hours a day. New equipment was also acquired just prior to the pandemic and during it.

“Between ourselves and Alberta, we’re [doing] the most per-capita testing outside the territories in Canada,” he said.

Although the situation has ramped down, Heinstein said the lab is still running 24 hours a day. There are just fewer technicians working per shift now.

Patient samples are taken for testing at at the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s microbiology lab in Halifax. (Communications Nova Scotia)

That means lab technicians have been able to take some much needed time off. Some have also started to do their regular duties, instead of just COVID-19 testing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to deal with hotspots though.

“There’s a lot of talk about being able to identify positive cases and rapidly respond and that’s how we’re setting our lab up, to be able respond to any potential hotspots that show up and then we can ramp up testing very quickly,” said Heinstein.

He said previous experiences with H1N1 and mumps and measles outbreaks helped staff train for the current pandemic.

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