May 13, 2020 | BY Ilka Cole
The 96th Medical Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, received kits for in-house COVID-19 testing for area Defense Department beneficiaries. With this capability, Eglin's lab technicians can cut the two-day processing time in half.
Prior to Eglin gaining in-house processing capabilities, the tests were sent to a lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with results taking anywhere from 48 to 72 hours. Now, with the new tests, it only takes about 70 minutes to determine the results.
The laboratory tests only patients being admitted to the local hospital. All other COVID-19 tests for symptomatic patients are still sent to the Wright-Patterson lab. To date, lab technicians have tested about 2% of the area's population of service members, family members and retirees. The testing is vital to contact tracing, isolation and quarantine efforts to protect the community, said Air Force Lt. Col. Jennifer Shirley, the laboratory and pathology flight commander.
''It is essential to identify admitted patients who are COVID-19 positive to determine patient care, as well as to control the transmission of the virus within the medical treatment facility,'' she said. ''This protects other patients and our health care workers.''
Health care providers determine whether a patient needs testing based on the patient's symptoms, the level of community transmission and risk of exposure.
''We may never see the patient being treated, but the laboratory team is absolutely essential to the care that an individual receives,'' Shirley said.
Lab technicians process samples using a molecular diagnostic analyzer that detects bacteria and viruses. Before COVID-19, the analyzer was used to detect pneumonia and gastrointestinal ailments, among others.
To work in the lab, Air Force medical lab technicians undergo 13 months of technical training to become proficient in the clinical laboratory tests used to determine the patient's health, possible diagnosis and treatment plans. This training includes multiple areas of study ranging from microbiology to urinalysis.
Even with all the training and specialized study, the current crisis continues to create learning opportunities.
''This situation is talked about and trained for, but never really expected,'' said Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Harris, a lab technician with the 96th Medical Group. ''There are curveballs and new questions asked every day that we didn't think of. We constantly have to think on our feet.''
The group's commander praised his team's effort.
''Diagnostic COVID testing allows the 96th MDG to provide safe, quality care and at the same time protect the health of our entire community,'' said Air Force Col. Matthew Hanson, the commander of the 96th Medical Group. ''Positive tests are the basis for contact tracing and allow public health professionals to break the chain of transmission. Without testing, we wouldn't know the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community or the risk to Team Eglin mission, personnel and families.''
(Ilka Cole is assigned to the 96th Test Wing.)