How it’s inside a North Carolina COVID-19 test lab
How it’s inside a North Carolina COVID-19 test lab

How it’s inside a North Carolina COVID-19 test lab

At the height of the omicron rise, Ottendorf Labs in Apex processed up to 5,000 tests a day.

APEX, NC – It’s almost two years since the first cases of COVID-19 was discovered in North Carolina. Since then, health systems and laboratories have spent a lot of resources on testing, and it will continue to be an important tool even as we move into an endemic phase.

But how does it go from a nose stick to a final positive or negative result?

The state has contracts with several different suppliers to provide tests, including Ottendorf Laboratories. They have an Apex lab that has processed hundreds of thousands of tests through the pandemic, many of them from the Charlotte area.

Processing a COVID-19 test is tedious work and requires careful concentration and absolute accuracy.

“We try to provide that service so people know in terms of health how they feel or what they can or can’t do,” said Joanne Ajmo, director of Ottendorf Labs at Apex.

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After a nasal inoculation is performed at a test site, it is typically mixed with a liquid in a test tube. These test tubes are brought by a courier to a laboratory. At Ottendorf, the first step is to scan each test tube into the system so they can track which sample belongs to which person.

Eventually, Ajmo’s team finally experiences the silence after the omicron storm. At one point, they processed up to 5,000 tests a day.

“You can definitely feel a difference, you can feel a difference,” Ajmo said. “The staff knows that when they come in, there are just hundreds of thousands of samples waiting, so they get busy right away.”

During the climb, the demand for testing reached unprecedented levels as the case counts broke pandemic records. In the Charlotte area, lines stretched for miles and a backlog built up, causing the results to take off longer time to process.

That’s why Ottendorf Labs bought certain machines to help control some of the chaos. One grabs 200 microliters from each test tube and places it on a plate with other samples, something laboratory technicians used to do by hand. What once took 30 minutes and had a lot of room for error now takes seven minutes.

“We invested a lot of money in automation to get people’s results on time,” said Laticia Godette, CEO of Ottendorf Labs.

Next, another machine extracts the RNA before a laboratory technician mixes it with liquids. In that form, a machine can essentially read the sample and determine if COVID-19 is present.

In the fall, technicians noted that the number of tests that came back positive increased rapidly.

“It was November, we started rising like 10%, 12%, and I would say in January, we were probably at 48, 50%,” Ajmo said.

From start to finish, the whole process takes two and a half hours. There are several checks on the system to ensure that the results are as accurate as possible and if there is an error they can run a test again.

Although the laboratory is not so busy right now, the process will become a solid component in the endemic phase.

“The lab is not disappearing,” Godette said. “We want to be here to serve the state of North Carolina. We want to be here to make sure people can get their results on time, and we want to be here to help get us back to normal.”

Ottendorf has partnered with Novant Health to help with testing in an effort to ease some of the pressure on frontline employees.

Contact Chloe Leshner at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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