Testing for COVID-19


The Microbiology Lab has increased its ability for testing to 1,400 COVID-19 tests per day and plan to keep increasing capacity.

In mid-March it became clear that COVID-19 testing was going to be needed at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). LHSC’s Microbiology Lab was ready to rise to the challenge of implementing a new test and everything that came with it, including new equipment, new processes, new team members and long hours. The lab is now providing support to all of South Western Ontario.

“We created a whole new testing methodology and trained new people, while providing the same level of service to all patients,” says Michael McConnell, Coordinator, Microbiology, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine (PaLM).

The Microbiology Lab at LHSC is focused on the detection and treatment of infectious diseases for the hospital. Normally, they provide clinical consultation, test development and quality improvement of tests. They conduct tests for the detection of bacteria, fungi, respiratory viruses and blood-borne infections. They also provide support including outbreak investigation to the hospital’s anti-microbial stewardship and infection prevention and control programs. They had to rapidly expand their capabilities with the arrival of COVID-19.

The Microbiology Lab worked collaboratively with eight other labs across the province to develop an effective test for COVID-19 that had a high rate of sensitivity and specificity to ensure accurate, precise results. “We were thrown a playbook we knew nothing about and it’s changing all the time,” explains McConnell.

The collaborating labs all have a high level of accountability and are certified by Accreditation Canada and the Institute for Quality Management in Healthcare. The development and refinement of the test took time to meet these standards.

“I’ve been in the field for over 28 years, this is my third pandemic, and it has been the most difficult. Despite the challenges, as a leader, I’m amazed at how well we’ve adapted to it and met the challenge head on. This pandemic is unique, it’s not something you can predict,” says McConnell.

The lab purchased equipment to develop, validate, and implement the new test. This included two liquid handler/extractors to handle specimens for testing and extracting the RNA of the COVID-19 virus from the samples, and a LC480 machine, which determines whether the sample is positive or negative for the virus.

Staff have been redeployed from other PaLM labs to the Microbiology Lab, increasing their lab staff by 6 full-time equivalent positions. Additional staff have also been redeployed to help with the receiving, accessioning and order entry of specimens. The Microbiology Laboratory is staffed by medical microbiologists, clinical microbiologists, medical laboratory technologists, medical laboratory assistants and clerks. “I can’t express how proud I am and how resilient the people in our laboratory have been. The entire staff have stepped up and fit this pandemic into their work lives, they’ve come together as an amazing team,” says McConnell.

The lab is currently operating with approximately six people on day and afternoon shifts, and two people on nightshift. It is running 24 hours a day for COVID-19 testing. Recently they have peaked at 1,400 tests per day, with plans to streamline their processes to be able to surpass 1,500 tests per day and maintain a 24hour turnaround time.

“We are further expanding our capacity for testing with purchasing more equipment and renovating our lab space,” McConnell explains. “We want to be prepared for future surges.”

Timely and accurate testing is crucial in the fight against COVID-19. LHSC’s Microbiology Lab and its team are stepping up to ensure this testing for all of southwestern Ontario.