Facing long waits for outsourced COVID-19 test results, Kaiser Permanente Northern California is building its own state-of-the-art lab in Berkeley capable of performing 10,000 tests a day.
The $14 million, 7,700 square-foot lab is currently under construction 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and should be ready for its first test June 1, said Scott Tibbetts, executive director of Kaiser Permanente Northern California Service Delivery.
Turnaround time for COVID-19 test results will be same day in many instances or the following day.
When it opens, the new lab will help Kaiser Permanente shift from testing members currently in the hospital or who are high risk, to a program that will test members on a much larger scale in order to monitor populations and put the brakes on future outbreaks. Testing on a large scale is one of six key requirements California Gov. Gavin Newsom has set to ease the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, Kaiser Permanente has increased its in-house COVID-19 testing for hospitalized and high-risk patients from 1,000 a day to 1,500 tests a day, said Brian Missett, MD, associate executive director of The Permanente Medical Group and radiation oncologist at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara.
Dr. Missett said Kaiser Permanente saw very early on that it would have to act quickly with a scalable plan to eventually test hundreds of thousands of Northern California members for COVID-19.
“When testing originated, it was done mainly out of the public health departments, but it became very clear, very quickly that they couldn’t handle the volume,” Dr. Missett said. “We started sending tests out, but the turnaround was 10 to 14 days. You can imagine the challenge when you’ve admitted a patient to the hospital, and you don’t know whether or not they are COVID-19 positive and how important it is to find out their status more quickly.”
Crisis Speeds Construction
The new lab is under construction inside a warehouse owned by Kaiser Permanente that until a couple of weeks ago was filled with different types of equipment. The design, city approval, and construction of the project in 60 days is unprecedented in recent memory, said Tibbetts. Berkeley is well known for its long construction approval process, but city leaders jumped right in to help, he said.
The process of designing, permitting, and building would normally take a minimum of 15 months or even several years, he said.
“But we were able to secure a building permit from the city of Berkeley in 5 days,” Tibbetts said. “They have been very good partners.”
Testing on Massive Scale
Dr. Missett said when Northern California communities begin easing stay-at-home orders, Kaiser Permanente will move to a COVID-19 suppression strategy with testing on a massive scale in order to prevent further outbreaks. That’s when the capability of doing 10,000 tests a day will be imperative.
“Right now everyone is at home, so if someone is mildly to moderately sick, they get well at home,” Dr. Missett said. “Once we start going back to work and to restaurants, we have to know who is infected, so they can be isolated and not spreading it further.”
He said testing will be available on a large scale for Kaiser Permanente members who are at risk for exposure or who are showing symptoms.
“You might get a message that says you are in an area of an outbreak, or you were at an event where there were sick people, so you should get a test,” Dr. Missett said.
Tibbetts said he is proud of his Kaiser Permanente colleagues who all pulled together to bring large scale COVID-19 testing to members.
“What really stands out for me is the innovation within Kaiser Permanente,” Tibbetts said. “The way everyone stepped up to partner and get this delivered in 60 days is pretty incredible.”