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DPHHS' Helena lab the center of coronavirus testing in Montana

Posted at 11:25 AM, Mar 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-14 13:25:39-04
HELENA —

When public health leaders and health care providers around Montana determine someone needs to be tested for COVID-19, they will collect a sample, then send it to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The samples will be tested at the state Public Health Laboratory.

As of Thursday, 55 people in Montana had been tested for the new coronavirus. On Friday, leaders said they expected the lab to process another 40. They say the growing demand for tests is likely to continue.

“Certainly we’re preparing for increased numbers,” said Dr. Ron Paul, the chief of DPHHS’ Laboratory Services Bureau.

Paul said they have received enough testing kits through the CDC to test an additional 1,000 people.

The testing procedure involves extracting material from the samples to identify whether any genetic material is present. Paul said it is similar to tests the lab already does for diseases like the flu.

“We already have people who are familiar with the method,” he said.

Paul said health care providers were originally taking both throat swabs and nasal swabs when testing patients for COVID-19, but that the lab receive updated guidance last night, saying that only nasal swabs should be used.

Many of the samples are brought to Helena through a special courier service, which collects samples from 14 locations around Montana and deposits them at the lab the next morning. Health care providers in other locations can send their samples by other means, including shipping them overnight.

The lab has about 20 clinical scientists, including about 15 directly involved in testing. Paul said the lab typically processes samples Monday through Friday, and that they are also planning to work on Saturdays in order to keep up with the demand for coronavirus testing.

“It would rise to the top of important things that we do,” he said. “If there are things that are less important, we have the capability to move testing resources around in the laboratory to make sure we address the things of greatest concern.”

Paul said, if Montana needs additional testing kits in the future, the lab has a procedure to order them through the CDC. He said, so far, they haven’t had issues getting what they need.

“It’s our role in public health to do our part in protecting the citizens of Montana,” he said. “This is just another instance where the folks in the department are responding in support of that role.”

DPHHS is not currently allowing any visitors inside the lab, due to safety and other concerns.

You can find DPHHS’ latest information about COVID-19, including the number of people tested statewide, on the agency’s website .