The C&W Laboratory at BC Children's and BC Women's hospitals is well equipped to provide critical diagnostic services as well as research, teaching and consultation services in pediatric and obstetric medicine.
However, at the start of 2020, the prospect of a new COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
"In the beginning of January we didn't know how easily this new bug would spread or how severe the disease really was," said Dr. Peter Tilley, head of the division of Microbiology at BC Children's Hospital and BC Women's Hospital Laboratory. "We realized we needed to reassess all our procedures to ensure the safety of our technicians while maintaining high quality of care for our patients, should we need to conduct regular coronavirus screening."
The 300 people who work at the C&W Laboratory, including 250 technical staff, set to work in case BC started seeing a wave of patients with the newly discovered coronavirus.
Together with the BC Centre for Disease Control, the C&W Laboratory staff trained how to carry out testing for the virus quickly and safely. Thanks to what Tilley calls "heroic efforts", including extended shifts and extra hours, the staff were ready to conduct their own testing for the new coronavirus by mid-February.
From that point on, the lab was regularly screening healthcare workers and patients at BC Children's and Women's hospitals to track any potential infections as soon as possible to ensure patient safety.
Of course all of this was in addition to their other laboratory duties.
"Babies still keep coming," said Michelle Kelsey, operations manager at the C&W Laboratory. "It was also still the tail end of the regular flu season, so our regular work kept going while we changed procedures, started the new protocols and ensured everyone had the appropriate protective gear for COVID testing."
These other laboratory duties for BC Women's, BC Children's and the province include prenatal and newborn screening and all the laboratory testing needed for a large hospital including blood work, pathology, specialty testing, chemistry, microbiology and virology.
Hospital and health authority leadership also stepped in to help ensure the lab was ready to tackle the pandemic by equipping them with the right tools, such as a new RNA extractor, and finding alternative sources of the reagents needed for the tests.
"Some of the real unsung heroes in the COVID-19 pandemic are those managing the supply chain," said Kelsey. "Behind the scenes we've had to compete in the global market for the same supplies and consumables as everyone else interested in carrying out COVID-19 testing, but we're now in a great position."
As of March 17, the laboratory had the necessary level of supplies and training to expand testing beyond healthcare workers to other people with suspected cases. That's when the hospital's COVID-19 collection clinic was opened up, ready to receive samples from staff, patients or anyone else that needed a test done.
"The last few months involved a tremendous amount of work from all parties to put us in the position we are now. It was a real all-hands-on-deck situation, but I am so proud of how well everyone has collaborated to make it happen," said Tilley.
"It was a great pleasure to see how well everyone worked together on this," said Kelsey. "Everyone from the laboratories across the province, to the nursing and medical staff, and the various emergency operations centres, so that we could be prepared for the worst case scenario."