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County teachers assist with local laboratory’s coronavirus testing system

Laboratory technicians don’t often receive pictures of lavish houses used in the production of TV shows and movies …

Front-Back: Pittsylvania County STEM Academy teacher David Potts, along with Vista Clinical Diagnostics Director of Laboratory Operations and her daughter, Pittsylvania County STEM Academy teacher Olivia McCraw go through the coronavirus testing system at Vista Clinical Diagnostics located in Market Square Shopping Center. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

Laboratory technicians don’t often receive pictures of lavish houses used in the production of TV shows and movies.

As of late, technicians with a Danville lab have been proving exceptions to the rule.

Danville’s Vista Clinical Diagnostics has been helping keep the entertainment wheels greased, performing coronavirus testing for a production company out of New York City and Washington, D.C., since the virus’s arrival this spring.

“One of the phlebotomy companies we work with collect daily testing samples from the actors and crew and they send them down here to us,” said Catherine Parker, director of laboratory operations at Vista Clinical. “The rep, she’s sent us a few pictures and we’ve seen some really impressive homes.”

The lab’s efforts aren’t just limited to entertainment companies hundreds of miles away. Since the spring, the company has also been providing in-house, same-day testing for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Danville and various parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

But the company’s stretch doesn’t end there. It also does testing for Piedmont Access to Health Services (PATH) in Chatham and also recently signed a contract with Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy, where it will do testing for students and faculty and staff.

“It’s really cool,” Parker said. “We’re a reference laboratory for these facilities and since they are often the most vulnerable population with this pandemic. But we’ve had some problems keeping up but when we were fully stocked, we’d probably do 3,000 tests a week, all nursing homes.”

Front-Back: Parker reads the results of a COVID-19 test while McCraw prepares another test sample in the background. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

Customers order the tests from Vista Clinical, who also provides the swabs used to test the patients. Once the test is run, a courier puts the samples on ice in plastic foam coolers and sends them off to the lab.

From there, technicians label the samples then send them off to Vista Clinical’s microbiology department.

The testing process begins with a transfer of the COVID-19 test sample into another tube holding a saline solution designed to keep the sample stable and alive.

The sample is then put into a BD Max analyzer — a machine resembling an undersized, futuristic tanning bed — where any coronavirus RNA (ribonucleic acid) present is broken down and amplified to provide an accurate result.

It takes the analyzer roughly two hours to complete the test. Once it’s finished, the futuristic tanning bed takes its readings and puts them on a computer monitor. From there, a series of multi-colored lines appear with a straight line representing a negative result and a curved line representing a positive result.

Recently, the company received a circular machine called an Aries that will allow them to run 96 samples simultaneously. The principle remains the same as the BD Max as the COVID-19 sample and saline solution go into the analyzer where any present coronavirus RNA is amplified using the mix, which uses magnetic beads that attach to any amplified RNA present.

“It’s much more of a manual way to this but we can do so many more this way,” Parker said.

In all, the process takes three hours to complete.

McCraw prepares a COVID-19 test sample to go into the analyzer where the virus’s RNA will be broken down and amplified for an accurate test result. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

As mentioned earlier, the company was running around 3,000 tests each week when COVID-19 made its first appearance in Virginia and North Carolina earlier this year. On top of that, the company also performs testing for non-related coronavirus illnesses in the region as well.

Knowing the workload facing them and the importance of their work, Parker quickly realized she was going to have to call in some extra guns.

“We got very much overwhelmed when all of this started,” Parker said. “We started testing and bam, we had, you can walk into processing right now and we have 500 samples that need processing right now.”

Luckily for her, she knew right where to turn.

Olivia McCraw isn’t only Parker’s daughter but a biology teacher at Pittsylvania STEM Academy and one of the smartest people Parker knows.

When COVID-19 made its first appearance, Parker knew they were going to need a bigger boat.

Luckily, McCraw has a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Virginia Tech, qualifying her for a lab position under Virginia requirements. Around that time, the county school system announced it was transitioning into virtual learning, leaving McCraw with a little extra time on her hands.

“One day I was really overwhelmed and when I’m overwhelmed, my first instinct is to call [Olivia],” Parker said laughing. “In the state of Virginia, if you have a bachelor’s degree in biological science, you can work in a lab for moderately complex tests so I was like, ‘Okay, [Olivia’s] at school every day, I bet you she might want to come down.’”

It was an offer McCraw was happy to accept.

“When we found out we weren’t going back to school, I felt kind of useless and I didn’t know how to deal with that because I didn’t know how long it was going to be,” McCraw said. “So, when I got the opportunity to come in here, I was thrilled. And I get to do real science which I haven’t done since college.”

McCraw not only accepted but brought others into the fold as well, recruiting fellow STEM Academy teacher and retired Tunstall football coach David Potts, along with Tunstall graduate and Gretna teacher Colin Johnson and Tunstall grad and former teacher Chris Gee.

According to Parker, the teachers have earned their trust.

“I can imagine every high school student in the county has to be brilliant when it comes to biology because these teachers that have helped are wonderful and I think they have all enjoyed getting back to the science part of it and if she hadn’t brought them onboard, our lives up here would’ve been much different.”

Training others isn’t exactly Parker’s forte. It’s not that she minds helping people along, it’s that after three decades of being in the lab, she’s developed her own system that allows her to work at maximum potential when people need it the most.

She’s had some help over the past five months.

“They’ve been really great in training people,” Parker said. “I don’t like training people. I don’t have the patience for it. I’m like, ‘Get out of the way, let me do it.’ They can train the new people coming in, help with the new stuff. They learn very quickly and that’s been one of the biggest helps. I can’t imagine where we would be without them and I hope they can go virtually because we can use them to help get over this hump.”

Parker has been dealing with viruses for over three decades. Both of her parents were teachers, McCraw is a teacher and her son William Wyatt is a Virginia State Trooper — just like his father — proving her family has servant’s hearts.

The same goes for Potts, Johnson and Gee. When he isn’t in the lab or teaching, Potts also works as a 2020 census taker, doing his part to ensure resources are distributed equally across the state.

With the world facing a situation many of us have never seen, it would only make sense the quintet would jump into action.

“People like for what they do in life to have purpose and teaching is a calling that gives you purpose, lab work is a calling that gives you purpose, being a deputy is work that gives you purpose,” Potts said. “Everybody likes to think what they do makes a difference to not only them but to other people as well.”

They’re doing just that.

Parker recalled a story about a woman from York, Virginia, giving her call a few weeks back, informing her that her father was in one of the nursing homes the company services.

The nursing home had given her Parker’s number and she called hoping Parker could perform an emergency COVID-19 test on her father because he was being transferred from a nursing home to hospice and was going to need a negative test before going.

“He was dying and she wanted him tested immediately because he was moving into hospice and hospice was the only way she could see him before he passed,” Parker recalled. “I went digging through those 5,000 specimens to test that one and it was negative so she got to see her dad. Those people are the reason we keep doing what we’re doing.”

It’s a good thing the quintet are so dedicated to serving others given the dangerous nature of their work.

“We’re clearly protected but it’s also a little scary,” Potts said. “It’s a harrowing thought.”

The HIV/AIDS virus was the first virus Parker worked with in the beginning of her career at Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax, Virginia. Parker never quite saw the same severity of a virus before she started working with COVID-19 a few months back.

“We are as scared now as we were then,” Parker said. “When I was in college, I remember taking blood home and learning how to slides. We had to make 50 perfect slides and I did it on my living room floor with no gloves or nothing and never thought about stuff like this but this is unreal and has taken on a life of its own and will be influential for years to come.”

It didn’t take long for McCraw to recognize the potential dangers associated with working so close to the highly contagious virus.

“I told mom with a bit of sarcasm when I first started working here that it’s really cool I have the pandemic-causing virus a millimeter from my skin,” McCraw said smiling. “Mom told me not to tell anybody that.”

Left-Right: McCraw and Parker each prepare pipette’s for the testing process. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

While the rest of us have been working remotely or regularly posting about the virus on social media, McCraw, Parker and Potts, have been working around the clock.

All three recalled having worked anywhere from 12–16 hour shifts when they first started testing and according to the trio, the shifts haven’t gotten any shorter.

“Everybody’s begging just like us,” Potts said. “When we have supplies, we literally work 14, 16, sometimes even 24-hour shifts. People just constantly working side-by-side in shifts.”

“And it doesn’t matter what else we have going on,” McCraw added. “Mom and I were pretty much working all night, then we brought in coach [Potts] and there were days where the entire staff worked 24–48 shifts, non — stop, processing COVID-19 samples and now between all of us, we’ll work for five days straight until we run out of kits again but we’ve made it work.”

For McCraw, her mom serves as a source of inspiration when things get tough.

“When I first started doing this, I really got a taste of what it’s like to work mom’s kind of hours,” McCraw said. “Because I’ve worked long hours coaching and teaching but nothing is like working long hours in a lab, especially by yourself. With other life things going on, my mom has been my biggest inspiration because she’s in here, no joke, 20 hours a day.”

“She would never admit it but I’m pretty sure she’s slept at the lab. So, when I’m here and I want to go home and go to sleep only to have to be back here three or four hours later, she’s what helped keep me going.”

The long hours, combined with the undivided attention required to perform their work, it’s easy to accidentally sneak up and scare people. Just ask Potts.

“When someone is alone here in the lab with all the machines cranking, it’s very hard to just not scare that person to death because they’ve been by themselves for four hours, doing stuff, and you’re busy and somebody walks in and goes, ‘Hey!’ It’s easy to scare them,” Potts said.

“I’ve learned to pay attention to when he might be coming in,” Parker said laughing.

McCraw concluded, “Even when I look at my watch to see when he’s coming in, I’m on the machine and lose track of time and hear his voice, it still gets me even when I know he’s coming in.”

No matter the hours, the danger or being scared half to death, they all know the importance in their work and the difference they’re making.

“I know we’ve already made a difference,” Parker said.

“When I call a nursing home and give them a negative result, it’s a pretty amazing feeling,” Potts added. “There are so many people, when you stick the swab into their back of their skull, that are expecting the worse. So, hearing that relief in their voice makes it special.”

For Parker and McCraw, getting to spend time together and grow their bond is another plus.

“With all the craziness, I will forever be grateful for the time she’s been here with me,” Parker added.

McCraw added, “We’re good at staying busy so this has been a great way for us to be busy together. And, we’re actually doing what we love together.”

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