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Inside an Indiana COVID-19 testing lab: What happens to your swab?

An Indianapolis lab is processing thousands of COVID-19 tests and with virus cases climbing, the lab doesn't expect its workload to decrease anytime soon.

INDIANAPOLIS — At Patients Choice Laboratories it’s a nonstop influx of COVID-19 test samples coming in.

“It feels sometimes like a dump truck coming and dumping,” said Jerome Nypaver, director of Laboratory Operations at Patients Choice Laboratories. “It’s a lot for our team here to go through, open, sort and then get everything accurately where it needs to go. It can be a daunting task.” 

With cases increasing, there are no signs of testing slowing down.  

“Right now, we are doing about 1,000 a day. We are projecting by the end of this week to be about 3,000 or 4,000 a day,” said Brad Moss, president of Patients Choice Laboratories.

Credit: WTHR
A team of scientists at Patients Choice Laboratories in Indianapolis process COVID-19 tests on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

The lab is located on the northwest side of Indianapolis and opened in 2013. It provides testing for toxicology, infectious disease and pharmacogenetics. They operate out of about 18,000 square feet with 140 employees. 

In March 2020, the lab took on the challenge of processing COVID-19 samples. Being an infectious disease lab, it was easy for them to make the switch. 

“By April, we were full throttle and the specimen came in almost by the truckload. We got hit pretty hard. It really kicked in again last Thanksgiving of 2020 and then this latest run of omicron has really spiked up the testing once again,” Moss said.  

Credit: WTHR
COVID-19 specimens are bagged and placed beside machines at Patients Choice Laboratories in Indianapolis on Jan. 10, 2022.

The specimens come from all over the county, with the majority being sent from Indiana and Kentucky. Of the tests that come in, about 75% are usually coronavirus-related. Moss said a lot of the samples right now are coming from long-term care facilities.  

At one point last November, the lab had about 9,000 specimens to process. Moss said it was all hands-on deck that weekend.

“That was the height for us. We all had blisters on our fingers from opening tubes and closing tubes and pulling out the swab with a tweezer. I would say we haven’t hit that quite yet, but we are definitely seeing everything ramp up,” Moss said.  

The team of 40 scientists works to quickly process each sample, which can take up to five hours to do, with about 380 samples at a time.  

With the demand for quicker results, many of the machines are running all day and night.  

“We had a nice business model going and then this explosion of specimen came, and it was a process of getting people in place and getting them trained. We went from what we call an eight to five, Monday through Friday schedule, to a seven days a week 24/7 schedule,” Moss said.  

Credit: WTHR
A device that helps process COVID-19 tests runs at Patients Choice Laboratories in Indianapolis on Jan. 10, 2022.

Since the lab processes PCR tests, they also pick up on different variants, including delta or omicron.  

“In fact, we found two specimens last week that we think may be a new variant. We are going to send that into Eli Lilly this week,” Moss said.  

Recently, Patients Choice Laboratories partnered with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to provide more testing for businesses facing an outbreak. The lab will send PCR test kits to employers anywhere in the state with instructions on how to do the collection. The lab will then pick up the test and analyze them in 24 hours. 

The lab has the capacity to do about 10,000 tests a day.  

The lab offers two kinds of PCR tests — one that can be done in 24 hours and another that can process results in two hours. The quicker one costs $200. 

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