Inside Test Nebraska: Where your sample goes

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 11:26 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - TestNebraska’s effort to crush the curve has had its road bumps.

It struggled to keep up with demand during summer surges--with long lines and delayed results.

But nine months since the start of the private-public partnership, lab and hospital officials are confident they can handle the next surge in tests. Its lab at CHI Health St. Elizabeth in Lincoln increased staff and received equipment from the state.

“There were some times that keeping up was a real challenge,” CHI Health president Derek Vance said. “We’ve hired more people. We effectively--since the start of the lab--have doubled our equipment, and more than doubled the number of staff that we have working in the lab.”

Both Vance and lab director Becky Croner both encourage Nebraskans to take advantage of the free test program. Test numbers have waned recently.

6 News received access to the TestNebraska lab at St. Elizabeth to show where your test sample goes after you’re swabbed. The lab hadn’t allowed media since May.

The lab can now process about 7,000 tests per day, compared to 3,000 when demand was high--but resources were scarce.

The team of nearly 80 people hasn’t stopped since April, with the exception of Christmas.

“They basically work long hours, lots of days, no time off really,” lab director Becky Croner said.

When your sample arrives at the lab it’s manually scanned in into their system. Employees pipet samples into blocks with up to 96 other containers, then lab equipment takes over. Machines extract RNA which could contain COVID-19.

Results are determined in a separate lab. It’s typically manned by multiple lab techs who process up to 800 results each batch.

“When we started collecting the specimens, the whole process was new, everything was new,” Vance said.

The hospital hired 50 people to run TestNebraska alongside its regular lab staff.

Croner can’t predict whether a new variant will result in another rush of tests, but after initial trial by fire, she and Vance say the lab can handle whatever comes next.

“They’ve got the systems down, so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do,” Croner said. “I think it’s running it more smoothly.”

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