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What it's like inside a North Carolina COVID-19 testing lab

At the height of the omicron surge, Ottendorf Labs in Apex was processing up to 5,000 tests a day.

APEX, N.C. — It has almost been two years since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in North Carolina. Since then, health care systems and labs have put a lot of resources into testing, and it will continue to be a vital tool, even as we move into an endemic phase.

But how does it go from a nose swab to a definitive positive or negative result?

The state has contracts with several different vendors to provide testing, including Ottendorf Laboratories. They have a lab in Apex that has processed hundreds of thousands of tests throughout the pandemic, many of them from the Charlotte area.

Processing a COVID-19 test is tedious work and requires careful concentration and absolute accuracy.

“We try to provide that service so that people know health-wise how they’re doing or what they can or cannot do,” Joanne Ajmo, the Ottendorf Labs director in Apex, said.

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After a nose swab is performed at a testing site, it’s typically mixed in with a liquid agent in a test tube. Those test tubes are brought by a courier to a lab. At Ottendorf, the first step is scanning each test tube into the system, so they can track which sample belongs to which person.

By now, Ajmo’s team is finally experiencing the calm after the omicron storm. At one point, they were processing up to 5,000 tests a day.

“You can definitely tell a difference, you can feel a difference," Ajmo said. "The staff knows when they come in there are just hundreds of thousands of samples waiting, so they get busy right away."

During the surge, demand for testing reached unprecedented levels as case counts broke pandemic records. In the Charlotte area, lines stretched for miles and a backlog built up causing results to take longer to process.

It’s why Ottendorf Labs purchased certain machinery to help control some of the chaos. One grabs 200 microliters from each test tube and puts it onto a plate with other samples, something lab techs used to do by hand. What once took 30 minutes and had a lot of room for error, now takes seven minutes.

“We invested a lot of money into automation to be able to get people results in a timely manner,” Laticia Godette, the CEO of Ottendorf Labs, said.

Next, another machine extracts the RNA before a lab tech mixes that with liquid agents. In that form, a machine can essentially read the sample and determine if COVID-19 is present.

In the fall, techs noticed the number of tests coming back positive was quickly increasing.

“It was November, we started increasing like 10%, 12% and I want to say by January, we were probably at 48, 50%,” Ajmo said.

From start to finish, the entire process takes two-and-a-half hours. There are several checks on the system to ensure results are as accurate as possible and if there is an error, they can run a sample again.

Even though the lab is not as busy right now, the process will become a permanent fixture in the endemic phase.

“The lab is not going away,” Godette said. “We will be here to serve the state of North Carolina. We will be here to make sure people can have their results in a timely manner and we will be here to help get us back to the new normal.”

Ottendorf has partnered with Novant Health to help with testing in an effort to relieve some of the pressure on frontline workers.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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