BILLINGS — Getting a COVID-19 test result can take up to seven days in Yellowstone County, but a private Billings practice has that length of time beat – and they want the public to know about it.
At Yellowstone Pathology Institute they’ve found a way to offer the public a COVID-19 test that’s ready in just 24 hours, reversing the frustration felt by many when it comes to waiting for results.
And the test is free with the help of CARES Act dollars.
In Yellowstone County, positive case numbers have dipped slightly but the threat of a new mutated strain has been seen across the globe.
“You know I don't think that we're quite done with this epidemic yet,” said Dr. Angela Durden.
She along with her colleagues have been monitoring the virus closely since its arrival.
Yellowstone Pathology Institute is comprised of 8 total pathologists performing diagnoses based on technical results. The lab performs clinical pathology services including those associated with surgical pathology, cancer diagnostics and testing related to women’s health such as pap smears and HPV screening, among other things.
The lab employs 30 people.
“We are experienced in laboratory testing that is our schtick, if you will,” said Durden. “We said, why not? Why couldn't we try to do this right here locally.”
Durden is talking about testing for COVID-19.
That’s because months ago, supply shortages impacted medical laboratories everywhere. Shortages were seen in sample collection materials, testing kits and even staffing.
Durden says the impact meant a “prolonged turnaround time” for COVID-19 results which ultimately extended quarantine times for people needing to get back to work, school and even those needing medical procedures.
“And that's had a big impact on a lot of people,” said Dr. Michael Brown. “People that need to travel people that want to go see their families.”
And the turnaround time is still a headache for many, most waiting as much as seven days in Yellowstone County to get their test results back from the county health department’s community testing site.
Meanwhile though at Yellowstone Pathology as many as 400 COVID-19 samples are coming in for testing and, in turn, going back out within just 24 hours.
Brown says the lab could even handle a capacity of more.
But how is it possible for this private practice to test for COVID?
As Brown explains they had to build their own test kit from scratch and its not only effective it is considered the “gold standard” when it comes to testing.
“Our test is a PCR based test so we're looking for the RNA In the virus,” said Brown.
Those with Yellowstone Pathologists say their practice of board-certified pathologists specialize in laboratory testing and the diagnosis of disease from tissue samples.
“Our skill set and the independent nature of our practice have uniquely positioned us to act quickly in response to the testing shortage,” said Durden.
The materials for the test were sourced from manufacturers across the globe.
“It has the highest performance characteristics that you see for tests on the market,” said Brown.
The practice also invested in additional robotic technology to create their own high-throughput test.
“We rigorously validated our test to ensure its quality and performance and have submitted a request to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization,” said Durden.
And they do it because there’s a need.
Waiting for a test result can be crippling, according to Durden.
“You know it's easy to send your test off and then, you know, suddenly you're waiting a week because once your sample arrives in some lab in North Carolina they pretty much tell you get in line,” she said.
The mission is to provide some relief to state and local jurisdictions and eliminate that bottleneck, which leads to residents staying healthy in this global pandemic and moreover getting back to work in a struggling economy.
“I think this test was born partially out of frustration because, you know, the lack of testing impacted us as well,” said Durden. “I mean we also have a workforce in our laboratory and we also have people that we have to look out for.”
At first the samples were coming from referrals from area doctor’s offices and other practices, but those with Yellowstone Pathology want the public to know anyone can get tested through their lab.
Durden and Brown also say their test is not to be confused with several antigen based rapid COVID tests available online. Those tests can yield false negative and false positive results, said Durden.
And coming at the end of January, Yellowstone Pathology plans to open a COVID-19 test collection center in the Yellowstone Medical Center where anyone can drop in, have their sample collected and get their results in hours.