It was a record-breaking year for the flu in the Greater Rochester Region. Just ask anyone working in the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Strong Memorial Hospital (SMH), which saw a 37 percent increase in the number of flu tests performed at SMH between July 2017 and June 2018 over the previous season. Our labs performed 17,862 tests in total.
Why the increase? Kim Handley is the supervisor of Clinical Virology, and her team collects weekly data to report to the CDC and also post online. This year’s testing volume was even higher than when the swine flu epidemic hit in 2009.
“It was a record breaking year for testing volume due to several factors,” said Handley. “It was the perfect storm.”
As is typical for the time of year, there was a sharp increase in flu cases during and after the holiday season, when family and social gatherings lead to germ sharing.
Locally, there were more than 6,600 confirmed flu cases in Monroe County, with Influenza A-H3N2 being this year’s primary strain. There were also many cases of seasonal Influenza A-H1N1 and an unusually high number of Influenza B and RSV at SMH.
Handley said that although the lab ran lots of tests, the number of patients who actually had flu was much lower. “Our volumes were up so much but our positivity rate was lower because we were testing so many people,” she said. This could be due to many patients coming to see a doctor when they experience flu-like symptoms.
Flu Hit Country All at Once
Normally, flu season starts in one part of the country and spreads to other regions. But this season, the majority of the United States experienced a simultaneous onset of influenza. This put pressure on manufacturers of the flu testing kits (which contain plastic pipettes and cartridges that are loaded into a machine that gives the results) and the collection swabs and transport materials used to gather the samples from patients.
Testing Materials in High Demand Nationally
The demand for all of these materials grew not only locally, but across the country. In fact, so many people were being tested for flu that URMC was one of many healthcare institutions placed on allocation by their main kit manufacturer. This means the hospital received a limited number of testing kits because demand was so high.
One interesting byproduct of these shortages was collaboration among neighboring healthcare institutions. Lab personnel at Strong shared testing kits and supplies with Rochester Regional Health’s ACM Laboratories and vice versa. When one was running low on something, the others would share.
“It’s not unusual for labs to call each other up when flu season is at its worst,” explained Handley. While this has happened in years past, the collaboration this season was noticeably more frequent.
Lab volumes were high for other reasons. In February, the Food and Drug Administration pulled a widely used rapid antigen test from distribution because it was found that the test had poor sensitivity. This forced several UR Medicine-affiliated hospitals that relied on these tests kits to send their specimens to SMH.
Through it all, however, the laboratory team of medical technologists at SMH rose to the challenge during this particularly difficult season. This according to Nicole Pecora, M.D., Ph.D. is the Assistant Director of Clinical Microbiology at SMH.
“I am proud to be part of such an amazing team,” said Pecora. “Not only did our clinical virologists rise to the challenge of an exceptional flu season, but virtually every member of our laboratory pitched in to deliver the best care for patients, starting from those who received and accessioned the samples to those who picked up extra work and shifts to get through such a tremendous volume. It truly showed the patient and team-directed mentality of our staff.”
In photo: Medical Technologist, Lauren Brooks loads a specimen into a flu testing analyzer at the Clinical Microbiology Lab at Strong Memorial Hospital. This year, the hospital’s testing volume was almost 40 percent higher than last season.