Eglin lab begins COVID-19 testing

  • Published
  • By Ilka Cole

The 96th Medical Group obtained the ability to test for COVID-19 at their laboratory here in early April.

The lab’s technicians received and brought the novel coronavirus test kits ‘on-line’ April 10 to begin (in-house) testing for area DOD beneficiaries. With this capability, Eglin’s lab technicians cut the two-day processing time in half.  

Prior to Eglin processing, COVID-19 tests were sent to a lab at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, and took 48 to 72 hours to get the results.  Now, it only takes approximately 70 minutes to find out the results for in-house tests.

Currently, the laboratory only tests COVID-19 samples of a patient being admitted to the hospital here.  All other coronavirus tests for symptomatic patients are still sent to the Wright Patterson lab.  To date, lab technicians tested approximately 2% of the area’s military population to include dependents and retirees. Testing is vital to contact tracing, isolation and quarantine to protect the community.

“It is essential to identify admitted patients who are COVID-19 positive to determine patient care, as well as to control the transmission of the virus within the medical treatment facility. This protects other patients and our healthcare workers,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Shirley, laboratory and pathology flight commander.

The decision to test a patient is made by healthcare providers. The patient’s symptoms, the local level of community transmission and risk of exposure inform the healthcare providers decision to test.

“We may never see the patient being treated, but the laboratory team is absolutely essential to the care that an individual receives,” she said.

Lab technicians process samples using a molecular diagnostic analyzer used to detect bacteria and viruses. Before COVID-19, the system was used to detect the causal agents for pneumonia and gastrointestinal ailments among others.

Air Force medical lab technicians undergo 13 months of technical training to become proficient in clinical laboratory tests used to determine the patient’s health, diagnosis, and treatment.  This includes multiple areas of study and training from microbiology to urinalysis.

Even with all the training and specialized study, the current crisis continues to create learning opportunities.

“This situation is talked about and trained for, but never really expected,” said Staff Sgt. Nathan Harris, 96th MDG lab technician. “There are curveballs and new questions asked every day that we didn’t think of.  We constantly have to think on our feet.”

The group’s commander praised his team’s effort.

“Diagnostic COVID testing allows the 96 MDG to provide safe, quality care and at the same time protect the health of our entire community,” said Col. Matthew Hanson, 96th MDG commander. “Positive tests are the basis for contact tracing and allow public health professionals to break the chain of transmission. Without testing, we wouldn’t know the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community or the risk to Team Eglin mission, personnel, and families.”