July 14, 2020

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Provincial lab learning to work under spotlight

Lab doc says staff have stepped up to challenge of pandemic

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At her workplace, COVID-19’s spread into Manitoba was followed by longer hours, more public scrutiny and a sharp hike in demand.

Dr. Kerry Dust, who leads diagnostic and public health test development for the virus detection section of the Cadham Provincial Laboratory, said the first local positive tests for the disease in March cast a sudden spotlight on the lab.

"We don’t usually get as much attention. There’s been a lot of pressure because people are watching and wanting to know and keeping on top of everything (that’s happening)," said Dust.

That spotlight was paired with a sharp increase in the lab’s daily workload. Dust said the volume of COVID-19 testing is far higher than what she’s seen for other viruses, since she began working at Cadham during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

"In a really busy flu season, we might get 200 to 300 tests a day, maybe even up to 400 if it’s crazy busy. But now we are (often) exceeding 800 tests every day, so it’s significantly busier," she said.

Dr Kerry Dust, virologist at Cadham Provincial Laboratory, says the lab is sometimes conducting more than 800 tests a day. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Dr Kerry Dust, virologist at Cadham Provincial Laboratory, says the lab is sometimes conducting more than 800 tests a day. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

As of Monday, the Cadham Lab had performed a total of 13,476 COVID-19 tests.

Dust said that surge in demand led to more staff overtime and additional weekend shifts. Several medical laboratory technologists from other sections of the lab have also been cross-trained to help address COVID-19.

"This is certainly the biggest ramping up that we’ve had to do in recent memory," said Dust.

Manitoba Health says total overtime data for the workers isn’t available yet, but most of the lab’s 120 employees have in some way supported pandemic testing efforts.

While her pre-pandemic work covered many kinds of viruses, such as influenza, measles, mumps and herpes, Dust said her workday is now almost solely devoted to COVID-19.

Since the lab began monitoring the spread of coronavirus in China back in January, Dust has worked to develop Manitoba’s COVID-19 test, validate it and train staff on the testing procedures.

Each staff member’s temperature is checked at the start of every shift and breaks are staggered to help employees follow new social-distancing rules. (Brian Inganga / The Associated Press)

Each staff member’s temperature is checked at the start of every shift and breaks are staggered to help employees follow new social-distancing rules. (Brian Inganga / The Associated Press)

Dust said each workday also involves a few new precautions, with each staff member’s temperature checked at the start of every shift and breaks staggered to help employees follow new social-distancing rules.

She said many safety measures are simply continuing since the lab handled highly contagious viruses prior to COVID-19.

"This is a Level 2 pathogen and that’s what we typically work with here," she said.

Dust said she’s proud of the work she and her colleagues achieved over the past few weeks.

"Each one of our staff has really stepped up and adapted to these new challenges … I’m very proud to serve Manitobans and I know we all are," she said.

Joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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