A health worker arranges swab samples for COVID-19 tests at the New Delhi railway station, January 11, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan
- The average of 800-1,000 tests per day on December 28 has rapidly climbed to up to 3,000 per day in the second week of January 2022, according to one lab.
- Industry insiders said several labs are hiring more staff, ramping up infrastructure and making plans plan to expand the capacity of their central testing labs.
- But the biggest challenge for labs remains to ensure the safety of their employees without compromising on their ability to run tests.
New Delhi/Mumbai: Hiring more staff, expanding capacity and opening walk-in centres are some of the steps laboratories are taking to cope with the twin imperatives of increased tests and timely results as COVID cases spike sharply in the country.
As India copes with an omicron-driven explosion in numbers, the spotlight is on laboratories that are pulling out all the stops to ensure they are able to conduct the maximum number of tests, deliver results on time and also keep their own staff safe from the contagion.
The pressure has been building by the day with increasing numbers of people showing COVID symptoms booking tests to rule out or confirm the infection and many others needing a negative test to travel, attend office or enter restricted venues. There is also the added pressure of those needing non-COVID tests.
“The surge has been sudden. The graph has been too vertical and we weren’t expecting such a severe surge,” Dr Dangs Lab CEO Arjun Dang said in the national capital.
He said the company has invested a lot in the last six months in its molecular biology lab.
“We have participated in vaccine trials, and in September, October and November, we were processing as many samples as much as we are processing currently. During such trials, samples need to be processed quickly like within 24 hours. We have increased our infrastructure and manpower,” he said.
The lab has been testing around 1,000 samples every day, Dang said.
On Wednesday, India added 1,94,720 new coronavirus infections taking the total tally of COVID-19 cases to 3,60,70,510 (36 million/3.6 crore). Active cases increased to 9,55,319, the highest in 211 days, according to data from the Union Health Ministry.
Cases in Delhi, too, have been spiralling high with the city on Tuesday recording 21,259 fresh COVID cases, the highest since May 1, and a positivity rate of 25.65%.
We have made a testing capacity of 7,000 samples a day in Delhi, which can be ramped up to 10,000-15,000 a day. Besides this, we have also expanded our capacity for sample collection,” executive chairperson of Dr Lal Path Labs, Arvind Lal, told PTI.
“So far, we are placed well in Delhi and across India, but the burden is increasing,” he said, adding that Dr Lal Path Labs has about 21 laboratories in the country.
Besides regular testing, he added, a lot of people planning to go abroad need their reports within 24 hours.
This has put additional burden on the staff and labs are practically working round-the-clock now, he said.
Industry insiders said several laboratories are hiring more staff, ramping up infrastructure, opening walk-in centres, making plans plan to expand the capacity of their central testing labs and also collection capacity.
They also have to ensure that strict safety protocols are followed to protect their staff.
Dr Lal Path Labs, for instance, has opened about 50 walk-in centres across India, including in Delhi.
In Maharashtra, Thane-based Alpine Diagnostic LLP, which receives samples from all over the Mumbai metropolitan region barring greater Mumbai, has also added necessary infrastructure and manpower but the resources are definitely under pressure, officials said. It has witnessed a three times surge in the amount of RT-PCR tests it is conducting.
The average of 800-1,000 tests per day on December 28 has rapidly climbed to up to 3,000 per day, co-founder Dr Sandip Jadhav said.
This is very different from the first or the second waves, where there was a gradual surge in cases. Now, we are in the midst of a rapid rise, Dr Hrishikesh Chevle, another co-founder, said.
Inevitably, he said, turnaround time for delivering test reports has doubled to 16 hours.
Maharashtra and its state capital have been particular cases of concern for their high numbers. On Tuesday, Maharashtra recorded 34,424 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, 954 more than the previous day. Mumbai reported 11,647 new COVID-19 cases, the fourth day in a row of a dipping graph. Experts and citizens have their fingers crossed that the slide continues.
As cases go up, the Karnataka government on Tuesday decided to to increase tests in Bengaluru to 1.3 lakh daily in view of the rising cases.
Officials said the state conducts about 1.5 lakh daily tests in the state but Bengaluru alone contributes about 80 to 90% of cases daily, compelling the government to come out with Bengauru specific rules.
There are about 265 test labs in the state, including 97 government ones. The labs, with a capacity to perform 2,19,980 tests a day, are presently conducting 1,27,194 tests on a daily basis, the data shows.
“There is no stress on labs at present because the infections are well within capacity. Our daily tests are also satisfactory in number,” the official told PTI requesting anonymity.
The Metropolis Healthcare lab in the Tamil Nadu capital Chennai said it is doing its best to cope with the pressure and also to comply with the government’s rules and regulations.
“We have planned well in advance to manage the incremental volumes expected due to surge in COVID cases,” said managing director Ameera Shah.
However, the biggest challenge is to ensure the safety of their employees, she said.
“Starting from hiring additional workforce, making existing teams work much more, stocking extra inventory, buying more equipment and all this within a very stringent price cap. Healthcare institutions like ours are going over and beyond to take care of patients and support in this crisis”, she added.
Neuberg Diagnostics in the state has also geared up to meet the challenge of another COVID wave.
It has increased its staffing, right from registration to the result entry process, said Technical Director and Chief Microbiologist Dr Saranya Narayan. If the need arises, it will take on additional trained technologists.
Besides, positive reports are released only six hours after they have been uploaded into the Indian Council of Medical Research portal to facilitate tracking and tracing of patients by the Greater Chennai Corporation, Narayan told PTI.
West Bengal capital Kolkata is also feeling the pressure with diagnostic laboratories saying they are struggling to handle the huge number of requests pouring from different corners of the city, officials said.
While most have started facing a scarcity of testing kits, a growing number of laboratories are witnessing shortage of staff members after they tested positive, an official of a leading pathological/diagnostic centre in the city an official told PTI.
“We cannot take online requests any more. Actually, it’s the system which is not accepting any further requests. We have a capacity of taking at least 400 people. The portal is flooded with requests three times our capacity and that is why we are unable to take more requests.
“We are facing shortage of manpower as eight of our staff engaged in collecting the samples have tested positive for coronavirus,” said an Apollo Diagnostic official in Tollygunge.