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KRH is the first hospital in the state to offer advanced COVID-19 testing

Kalispell Regional Healthcare (KRH) is the first hospital in the state to offer highly-specialized, advanced COVID-19 testing capabilities through new technology in an in-house molecular lab. This new testing platform benefits the community with increased access to COVID-19 testing and accurate, timely results. “We can use this very sensitive type of testing for a number of infectious diseases. It enables us to detect positive cases more rapidly and gives confidence in the results,” said KRH Infectious Disease Physician Jeffrey Tjaden, MD. “By investing early and aggressively to secure this testing, we can serve our community now and in the future.”

KRH began testing patients early on in the pandemic, using multiple platforms; however, testing supplies were limited. KRH recognized that accurate and timely testing would be a critical element to combat the pandemic. In May, 2020, we became aware of a biotechnology company in Missoula, FYR Diagnostics, whose team of molecular diagnostic experts had completed a thorough review to identify a testing solution that was sustainable, highly accurate and had the capacity for high throughput.

Through that connection, KRH learned about a platform that could serve patients’ needs now and in the future. By acting quickly, KRH was able to order all the equipment. Components began arriving at the end of the summer, and the equipment was installed and fully operational in October. “Generally equipment like this is used by large research institutions. It is highly unique for a hospital to use this technology in-house,” said KRH Director of Laboratory Services Adam Birks. “It has the capability of testing a wide variety of other infectious diseases in addition to COVID-19, which positions KRH to address future testing needs.”

Accurate and expedient COVID-19 testing allows people to isolate themselves from others to prevent the spread of illness and seek care sooner if they have symptoms. This equipment helps expedite the testing process since it can test large batches of around 100 specimens at a time.“COVID-19 can present with a variety of symptoms such as those seen with a cold or the ‘flu’ and patients can even have no symptoms,” said Dr. Tjaden. “It is important to test and identify all those persons infected with COVID-19 even asymptomatic ones as they can unknowingly be transmitting the infection to other people.”

The platform uses a sensitive Polymerase Chain Reaction or (PCR) test to detects genetic material of the virus and is highly accurate, as compared to antigen tests. PCR tests are the most accurate tests available and are considered the “gold standard” for detecting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The antigen tests have higher rates of false negatives and false positives. 

Many hospital systems have to send their PCR testing to remote labs, but KRH has been very proactive to build an inventory of in-house PCR testing platforms for rapid turnaround of results. This has enabled KRH to continue on site testing even as supplies and reagents for specific platforms have been in short supply nationally.

In the first 14 days after the new platform became fully operational, KRH performed more than 3,000 COVID-19 tests in the in-house lab, more than the total tests performed from March through August. Thus far, the highest number of tests KRH performed in one day reached nearly 800.

This new testing technology enabled KRH to enhance surveillance testing of vulnerable patient and staff populations and launch a robust drive-through testing service for the community. The drive though service began on October 26 and is open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is a convenient option for those who are in need of testing, but do not need to see a provider.

Kalispell resident Duke Tomlinson was one of the first to use the drive-through service. “When our 5-year-old showed symptoms of COVID we were advised that he had to be tested before he could return to school,” explained Tomlinson. “We went to the drive through, filled out our paperwork, pulled up to the tent, and everyone was so nice and helpful. It’s not easy to get a 5-year-old tested for COVID, but the staff was amazing with him. It was so quick and we got our results much sooner than expected, which was really helpful so he could return to school and I could return to work.”

This new testing is yet another example of KRH’s tradition of being a leader in laboratory medicine technologies. The organization established the first hospital-based molecular laboratory in the state at Kalispell Regional Medical Center in 2005 at the onset of the MRSA outbreak. “We have led the state in testing capabilities during other past infectious outbreaks, including MRSA and H1N1, and even supplemented the state lab’s testing in 2012 with the pertussis outbreak,” said Dr. Tjaden. “Our innovative approach to COVID-19 testing is ahead of the curve and better positions the organization to best care for the health and safety of our staff and patients during this and future infectious disease outbreaks.”

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