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HSA celebrates it’s 20,000th PCR test for COVID-19

Health Care 27 Jul, 2020 Follow News

Senior Forensic Scientist Christian Taylor operates a machine used in PCR testing

Now four months into the Cayman Islands’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Health Services Authority (HSA) is celebrating a milestone - its 20,000th Polymerase-Chain Reaction (PCR) test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

While the burden of travel restrictions, social distancing, mask wearing and other limitations posed by life during a pandemic have affected everyone on the islands, the HSA staff have been working to extreme lengths to acquire testing kits and laboratory supplies from around the world.

“The HSA has led the national efforts in population testing and has contributed to over 24,000 PCR samples performed since March,” said Forensic Technical DNA Specialist Angela Tanzillo-Swarts, who also serves as quality manager at Forensics Science Laboratory. “Most noteworthy is that we typically result 2,000 or less tests each year, which means that our lab will have resulted 10 years’ worth of tests within just a few months.”

“The result of all of our efforts is that the Cayman Islands has ranked third in the world in the number of COVID-19 tests performed per capita, while its businesses can safely re-open,” she further stated. “This has come as welcome relief to the nation and stands in contrast to other countries that have lagged in testing and are now sadly facing soaring case numbers and reversals in their decisions to open businesses.”

The team at the HSA performing the PCR tests is made up of experts from the Cayman Islands, United States and Canada and spearheaded by its Forensic Science Laboratory and assisted by its Pathology Laboratory. The forensics laboratory has been performing complex DNA and RNA tests for over a decade in criminal cases, paternity DNA testing, and public health screening. It is also the only accredited lab for PCR testing in the Cayman Islands, meaning that it abides by the strictest standards for testing internationally. Notably, the laboratory has also led the Cayman Islands’ testing for Zika Virus, Chikungunya, and Dengue fever.

Senior Forensic Scientist Christian Taylor explained, “To really be absolutely certain of our results, we have multiple sets of control samples – those we know to actually contain the virus’ genetic material, as well as those that contain no virus – that are run alongside all patient samples. If any of these controls gives an unexpected result, we can then investigate what may have occurred and repeat the testing if necessary. We’re also testing multiple genetic markers in every sample, not just one. We also use state-of-the-art robotic systems in our processes, which gives us an added layer of confidence in our results. Due to the importance of this testing, we view it as imperative to have such a meticulous level of control.”

Over the past four months, the laboratory staff have been working relentlessly, with a constant intake of patient samples from across the Cayman Islands, having done all the testing for Cayman Brac, Little Cayman, and the vast majority for Grand Cayman. Now the team has accelerated its testing capability with the addition of new staff and the ability to return results within a day of sample collection. Rush samples for patients requiring emergency surgery have been performed in a matter of hours with the GeneXpert machine.

Now, as the Cayman Islands is getting ready to move to its lowest level of containment and considers the future of international travel and tourism, the HSA has added antibody testing to its arsenal of testing procedures. Antibody testing will enable doctors and health specialists to get a clearer picture of how many people in the islands have been exposed to the virus and still carry antibodies to it, even if they no longer have the virus in their system. Just as with its PCR tests, the HSA is focused on using only internationally proven antibody tests that are performed with the highest level of standards. Having set the benchmark for PCR-testing in Cayman, the HSA aims to also lead and support the country in antibody testing to keeps its people safe and its businesses ready to work.

PCR and antibody testing are available to the public. If you are interested in being tested, please email covidscreening@hsa.ky.

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