Who does COVID-19 testing? Milwaukee's Public Health Lab Director spells out the process

Posted at 6:40 PM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-22 19:25:37-04

MILWAUKEE — If you've been confused about the COVID-19 testing process here in our state, you're not alone. TMJ4 News' Lauren Linder talked with the Milwaukee Public Health Lab Director to clear the air.

Across the country, officials and experts continue to throw around the word "testing" to talk about tracking positive and negative cases of COVID-19. However, when the term is used, there can be some miscommunication.

The Milwaukee Public Health Lab in the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building is one of the places where actual testing is being done.

Dr. Sanjib Bhattacharyya is the lab director.

"That's some misnomer how it's being used," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

Think about testing in two parts: (1) collecting a sample or swab and (2) the processing of that collection.

Dr. Bhattacharyya said labs only do the latter.

Wisconsin's two public health labs in Madison and Milwaukee are primarily processing those with critical symptoms.

"Local hospitals, Ascension, Columbia St. Mary's, Froedtert, Children's, everybody pretty much sends their high-risk patients to us," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

He also said these days some healthcare providers are deciding to send them to private labs, such as those they contract with.

The private labs are also where healthcare providers and clinics send samples from patients with mild symptoms.

"They'll go to the large volume local laboratories and clinical laboratories, or they may have contracted with the national reference laboratories," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

Dr. Bhattacharyya said as the outbreak continues to evolve, they're starting to serve more patients.

"Primarily for the long-term care facilities, jails, rescue mission, shelter sites," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

Right now, the lab has a capacity of more than 350 tests per day, but Dr. Bhattacharyya said they're only doing about half that per day.

He said that's due, in part, to their focus on high-risk patients. Dr. Bhattacharyya noted it could also possibly be linked to continual shortages of both collection and processing supplies.

"It's a moving target for us. We are kind of keeping a close eye, working on many fronts and reaching out to the CDC or all our vendors to make sure we have a steady supply," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

As the state continues to expand testing, the lab is prepared for whatever comes their way.

"I think we are likely to see more testing coming to us, but we'll continue to monitor those the best we can and provide the best services that we can do," Dr. Bhattacharyya said.

The Milwaukee lab can provide results within 24 hours. During this pandemic, it's serving Milwaukee and the surrounding counties.

When it comes to supply shortages, it's important to note that Wisconsin's two public health labs can provide collection kits to many of the healthcare providers and clinics. You may have also heard about labs like Exact Sciences and Wisconsin Diagnostic Labs in recent days because of the state's efforts to increase testing. Those private labs also provide collection kits, but only those kits can only be processed by the labs they came from. They are all FDA approved collection kits, but are manufactured by different companies.

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