Coronavirus: How tests are conducted

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health began testing for the new novel coronavirus. As of Wednesday afternoon, the lab had tested 21 people. Thirteen tests came back negative and eight are still pending.

So, how do they conduct the test? Good Question.

As of Wednesday, the test for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can only be done at the MDH infectious disease laboratory in downtown St. Paul. The Centers for Disease Control sent state officials enough testing materials to test 1,200 people. By the middle of next week, state health officials said they expect commercial labs to be able to test as well.

The state generally follows the Centers for Disease Control guidelines when it comes to testing patients. Doctors can call into a 24-hour hotline to determine if they have a patient who should be tested.

Once it’s determined a specific patient should be tested, the sample often arrives at the St. Paul laboratory via a courier who is certified to handle biological samples. Those samples are generally cells from a nose swab, throat swab or materials that have coughed up by the patient.

When it first arrives, the sample is checked in, matched against the patient’s information and prepped for the test.

The lab is biologically secured and anyone who enters is required to wear a lab coat and goggles. They use bio-safety cabinets and require people to wash their hands anytime they leave a room, even if they haven’t touched anything. This is a laboratory that tests for all kinds of diseases, including influenza, norovirus, rabies, and measles.

When it comes to safety measures, the new coronavirus acts like other respiratory viruses the state scientists know and understand, according to Sara Vetter, the infectious disease laboratory manager.

“We are using that information to treat it like other respiratory viruses we see,” Vetter says.

Once the sample is prepped, it’s moved to a second lab, where the cells the virus might live in are burst open. That allows scientists to test for virus inside the cells. The virus is so small, it then needs to replicate so the scientists can see it – if it exists.

The entire laboratory testing process takes about four hours, but the Department of Health gives a window of two to three days because it can take time for the sample to arrive at the lab.

Once the results are reported, the sample is then sterilized and disposed of properly.

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