Public Health Laboratories have played a vital role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not only by improving patient testing but also monitoring performance of various methods, training personnel, tracking response, and more. The WSLH in WSLH Proficiency Testing stands for the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene, a national public health lab, where our team of Medical Technologists provide proficiency testing (PT) services every day. As part of a public health lab, WSLH Proficiency Testing’s suite of SARS-CoV-2 proficiency testing products is just one facet of the multi-faceted response that the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene (WSLH) is providing to improve accuracy of testing in an attempt to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
WSLH’s response is not only the leading response for the state of Wisconsin, but also nationwide since WSLH is a national reference center for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This article is a 50,000 foot view of WSLH’s response to COVID-19, and suggests by labs supporting WSLH Proficiency Testing, they are in turn giving back to WSLH’s public health response efforts.
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WSLH Proficiency Testing provides SARS-CoV-2 proficiency testing products for serology, molecular, and antigen testing; and also offers the SARS-CoV-2 analyte as part of Respiratory Multiplex product. Although helping improve patient testing by participating in proficiency testing is an important aspect of WSLH’s response to the pandemic, the full scope of the WSLH’s public health laboratory response is astounding. Creating new wastewater surveillance methodologies specifically for Covid19, increasing the volume of COVID-19 patient testing and monitoring, and implementing PPE decontamination procedures to be used in the workplace are just some of the many ways the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The emergence of Public Health as we know it began with wastewater surveillance methodologies. The work led by our lab’s water microbiology team and state partners builds upon this work as a means to limit the spread of COVID-19. Last September, surveillance sampling began in all but 5 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin. The lab’s wastewater surveillance program includes high frequency sampling for heavily populated areas and lower frequency sampling for rural areas throughout the state. The process itself includes taking water samples at treatment facilities that represent a 24-hour’s worth of sewage that feeds into a given facility. The samples are then “combed,” so-to-speak, for the RNA genetic material that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaves behind. These measured concentrations of the virus’s RNA can then tell our scientists how COVID-19 is impacting populations over time. In December, a dashboard was created for the public to view these changes in SARS-CoV-2 concentrations in any of the sewer sheds under surveillance.
To learn more about WSLH’s wastewater surveillance program, read this article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s news page.
Throughout the pandemic, laboratory workers and other healthcare professionals in the U.S. have been dealing with shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This shortage has forced facilities to re-use or extend single-use PPE, such as gloves and N95 respirator masks. In order to re-use them, the masks need to be decontaminated. WSLH’s Occupational Health Laboratory (WOHL) have brought a critical service to the state of Wisconsin, using UV light decontamination methods, developed by Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Occupational health and safety consultants at WSLH have created online training videos, conduct live virtual trainings (as onsite trainings have been suspended during the pandemic), and implement PPE decontamination units at facilities. Activities like these under WSLH’s Onsite Safety and Health Consultation Program, known as WisCon, are unique among public health labs, as few conduct occupational safety consultations. To learn more about this program and more from WOHL, visit their page here.
At WSLH, the Communicable Disease Division (CDD) provides reference and specialized testing services in support of public health and ensures statewide access to laboratory expertise and capabilities in the disciplines of bacteriology, mycobacteriology, virology, parasitology, molecular microbiology, and serology. In regards to other statewide COVID-19 surveillance programs conducted at the lab, CDD is also performing antibody testing for the Past Antibody COVID-19 Community Survey (PACCS). This study is being led by the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW) in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and “…will determine the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies throughout the state.” Currently, CDD is also managing a multi-faceted suite of grants to build the lab’s response in regards to COVID-19 clinical testing. To learn more about Clinical Testing at WSLH, visit their webpage here.
From the implementation of wastewater surveillance to occupational PPE decontamination, WSLH Proficiency Testing’s SARS-CoV-2 products and technical expertise are just one of the many ways that the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the support of clinical laboratories as well as public grants, the scope of Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene’s response to the pandemic is ever-growing. When clinical laboratories enroll in proficiency testing with WSLH, it is wonderful to know that they are supporting many other vital services that build up the capacity of laboratory professionals to respond in their communities.