Pandemic through a pathology lens

12/Nov/2020     HealthPathology

From organisation teams setting up pop-up testing clinics in some of the most challenging environments, through to staff on the ground collecting and transporting samples to laboratories for testing, and the highly-skilled laboratory staff who have tested samples at rapid speed, this year’s pandemic has seen those in the pathology world undoubtedly step up to community need.

International Pathology Day (11 November) is dedicated to highlighting the fundamental role of pathology within healthcare, and this year has seen this role grow bigger than ever imagined. To recognise the day, we stepped inside what it was really like at the height of COVID-19 for our Mater Pathology team members.

“When Australia recorded its first positive COVID-19 case in January, it sent the country into chaos, but in the pathology world it triggered action,” said Deb Hornsby, General Manager at Mater Pathology.

Upon hearing the virus was well on its way to Australia, the team’s microbiologists, led by Dr Michael Thomas, were already working with infection control groups to try to understand both how to test for COVID-19 with the utmost accuracy, and what this virus meant for people following a diagnosis.

“Our teams were watching the numbers rapidly rising across Italy and the UK and began planning for a potential similar increase of cases here in Australia, with the first step being assessing our capacity to test for COVID-19,” Deb explained.

With the need for testing growing locally in Queensland, Mater teams worked in partnership with Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services, under Dr Sanmarie Schlebusch, to meet the Australian quality standard to receive approval for COVID-19 testing within Queensland.

Mater’s Cellular Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, led by Supervising Scientist Kathryn Just, soon became one of the few labs in Queensland to begin COVID-19 testing for the entire state, requiring a complete lab overhaul that would ordinarily take three months of preparation and implementation—completed in just one week.

With testing underway, various Mater Pathology teams were also working with Mater hospitals across the state to ensure inpatients remained safe through the highest level of pathology sensitivity.

“It was imperative for teams to begin testing any patients who presented with even the smallest possibility of being COVID-positive. Whilst ordinarily the tests took approximately 12 – 24 hours to provide a result, we were able to leverage our rapid respiratory platform to speed up test results. Supervising Scientist Tess Urbanski and the Microbiology team increased the capacity to offer these tests which provided accurate test results within 2-3 hours for patients, and this became critical to safe patient flow across the hospitals,” said Deb.

“Our Central Specimen Reception team under the leadership of Carrie-Anne Teale processed high volumes of urgent work through to the scientific team with speed and efficiency to ensure results were returned to clinicians and patients with haste. With the speed of these results, clinicians were able to isolate and treat COVID-positive patients sooner, but also get those who were negative back into the workforce and out of hospital beds, to ensure there was room for those who needed it most.”

As things worsened overseas, the supply chain for test reagents tightened becoming another hurdle Mater Pathology needed to overcome. The reagents required to physically test for COVID-19 competed with other testing so teams needed to balance supplies, reagent volumes, and testing priorities, as well as work closely with local and overseas suppliers to help ensure teams could keep up with community testing demand.

Deb explained that during outbreaks, collection staff and courier drivers, led by Deborah Woodgate, who took on the charge to ensure pathology teams were always in the right place at the right time. 

“Our staff teamed up with Mater Education to receive additional PPE training to upskill and refresh necessary protocols and techniques, which essentially provided staff with the much-needed confidence to take on what was ahead of them. Our courier drivers were supported by Blood Bikers Australia (a volunteer, last resort pathology delivery service) to ensure samples made it to the laboratory for testing without delay.”

“The collectors worked tirelessly to meet the community demand by establishing pop up testing clinics at Springfield Private Hospital, Macleay Island and South Brisbane. Working in conjunction with Mater Private Hospital Springfield and Metro South Health, and under the guidance of various experienced clinical teams, collectors ensured these clinics were up and running, ready to test people within 24 hours of initial request.”

Though Queensland is keeping its fingers crossed we are past the worst of the pandemic, Mater Pathology’s work is far from over now taking on testing for returned travellers and supporting quarantine efforts.

“Our pathology teams are supporting a number of hotel quarantine efforts, in partnership with Queensland Health to ensure pre-screening and onsite testing for those returning from overseas. We are also working in conjunction with the arts sector to support the testing and screening requirements for local teams and crews of a number of filming projects.”

Deb added that whilst with there is still so much to do now and well into the future for COVID-19, Mater Pathology scientists, pathologists, collectors, courier drivers and the extended team of support staff have already proven they can take on any challenge.

“All of our staff members have demonstrated their unwavering dedication to Mater and the entire Queensland community across this year, and our state is undoubtedly in safe hands.”

Thank you to all Mater Pathology staff and happy International Pathology Day!

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