Limited reagent supply may bottleneck Juneau’s new COVID-19 testing system

Update | 10:56 a.m. Thursday

Spherical viral particles have been colorized blue in this transmission electron microscopic image of a tissue sample from the first person in the United States to have COVID-19. (Image by Hannah A. Bullock and Azaibi Tamin/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Juneau city officials say Bartlett Regional Hospital workers have finished their training on a new system for processing COVID-19 tests in town.

Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove said they still have to run trials to make sure it works.

“It is quite a complicated piece of machinery, and there’s a lot that goes into making sure it’s reading those testing samples correctly,” she said.

It’s expected to go into service in mid-January.

The lab can process almost 400 COVID-19 tests in an 8-hour shift. That’s enough to cover Juneau’s daily needs so far, and potentially neighbors’ in the region. It would also cut turnaround time for results from a few days to the same day.

However, city officials say the vendor Roche can for now only provide enough of the chemicals used to process test samples, or reagents, for 940 tests a week.

“With all of these types of machines, the reagent is proprietary, so it does come directly from the vendor,” said emergency planning chief Robert Barr. “Whichever vendor that you source the system from, the reagent has to come from that same vendor. And that is true with Roche as well.”

Barr said spoilage isn’t much of an issue, so when testing needs are low, the leftover reagent can be stored.

The officials spoke during the city’s weekly COVID-19 community update on Tuesday. They also noted more than 250 people a day were coming to town by plane around Christmas, which is relatively high.

City Manager Rorie Watt discouraged big New Year’s Eve parties, and urged travelers to do more than what’s been mandated.

“Strong encouragement to people flying into Juneau: Even if you’re not required to get a test if you’re coming in state or maybe you’ve got such a short duration trip, go ahead and get tested at the airport,” Watt said. “And do the strict social distancing, follow the guidelines anyway.”

As of Tuesday, city officials know of 44 people with active COVID-19 cases in Juneau, including one person being treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Original post | 2:16 p.m. Wednesday

Juneau city officials are holding their weekly COVID-19 community update at 4 p.m. today over video conference. You can watch on this post, on the City and Borough of Juneau’s Facebook page or on Zoom.

The public can submit questions in advance to CovidQuestions@juneau.org.

As of Monday evening, city officials know of 52 people with active cases in Juneau, including one person at Bartlett Regional Hospital. They found 19 new cases from Dec. 25 through Monday.

The emergency operations center also reported Monday that staff at the hospital have finished training on a new testing machine. It’s expected to go into service by mid-January. 

The lab can process almost 400 COVID-19 tests in an 8-hour shift. That’s enough to cover Juneau’s daily needs so far, and potentially neighbors’ in the region. It would also cut turnaround time for results from a few days to the same day.

However, city officials say the vendor, Roche, for now can only provide enough reagent for 940 tests a week.

Read next