Arizona’s largest lab bolstering COVID-19 test operation

PHOENIX (AP) — After a record-breaking day last week of COVID-19 tests, officials at Sonora Quest Laboratories said Tuesday that Arizona’s largest diagnostic testing lab will expand its operation and be able to take on thousands more samples.

Sonora Quest went through almost 30,000 COVID-19 PCR tests on Jan. 4, the most since the pandemic began. It receives specimens from 70 patient service centers, dozens of collection sites like drive-thru test lines, along with Banner Health facilities in six states.

The lab plans to add another "line"— a team of equipment plus 27 staffers including technicians and scientists — by this weekend, for a total of eight lines devoted to COVID-19 testing. This will mean Sonora Quest would be able to go through as many as 38,000 tests in one day, chief operating officer Sonya Engle said during a tour of the lab’s Phoenix headquarters.

With a roughly 40% positivity rate among the tests it’s received in recent days, hitting a new record is a real possibility.

"With omicron, we saw even higher levels (of demand) than with delta," Engle said. "We’re expecting to see the climb reach a plateau, and maybe it really could drop off in the next couple of weeks. But right now, we’re very busy."

The 250,000-square-foot (23,226-square-meter) headquarters was buzzing Tuesday with masked workers running COVID-19 tests. Of 3,500 employees, 1,300 are based in this building.

Like most companies in recent days, it has seen a higher than usual number of absences due to the highly contagious omicron. Engle, however, said there has been no major backlog. Sonora Quest has met the promised two-day turnaround time for test results "95% of the time." She credits employees who are trained across more than one department for filling in where they can.

Sonora Quest does PCR tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material and then reproduces it millions of times until it’s detectable with a computer. It shares positive specimens with partners TGen and Quest Diagnostics, which do the genetic sequencing to determine the variant present.

An additional challenge brought on by the pandemic has been meeting an exponential growth in demand for other testing. There’s been a 20% jump alone for cancer-related testing, Engle said. She believes it’s spillover from people who delayed other health issues because of the virus.

"I hope...they get their COVD PCR testing, know their status and get into their doctor and stay on their regular checkups and other required testing to stay healthy," Engle said.

Meanwhile, Arizona health officials reported 14,160 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 213 more deaths. The state’s pandemic totals now number 1,505,580 cases and 24,986 deaths.

Hospitalizations due to the virus remained on an upward trend that started Dec. 31. As of Monday, 2,869 people were in hospital beds for COVID-19.

RELATED: Arizona COVID-19 testing: Where you can go and how to make an appointment

Behind the scenes of Sonora Quest

From the moment you take your COVID-19 PCR test, it heads straight to a lab.

"We have people helping out in all aspects of COVID testing from specimen receiving to data entry to actually performing the tests," explained Dr. Regina Van Buren, medical director for Sonora Quest. "It’s been a really great team effort and everyone's hopped in to help out where the need is the highest which right now is the COVID area."

Sonora Quest, a joint venture between Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics, is part of the nation's largest integrated laboratory system serving more than 33,000 patients across Arizona. They’re performing more than 97 million diagnostic tests a year, including everything from cancer biopsies, to cholesterol testing, and now COVID-19.

"We began testing for COVID March 20, 2020. At the beginning, it was, you know, everyone in the entire country in the entire world wanted to test for COVID, so it was almost a mad dash for reagents and instruments to do the testing," Van Buren said.

On Jan. 4, 2022, they processed nearly 30,000 covid-19 PCR tests. That’s the most in one day since the pandemic began.

As more testing is expected to come through with this latest pandemic spike, they’re buying more machines and hiring more staff with a goal of analyzing 38,000 tests in a day.

"We have more capacity coming, Van Buren said. "We have two more set-ups like this to increase our capacity, even more, to stay on top of, to stay in front of the surge. It’s still going up and we are ready for it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Arizona COVID-19 resources, FAQ:

In order to protect yourself from a possible infection, the CDC recommends: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Monitor your health daily

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