Sandia LabNews

COVID-19 diagnostics testing makes clear impact


National security mission continues under safety framework

DIAGNOSTICS LAB TOUR — Labs Director James Peery and Deputy Labs Director Dori Ellis toured the COVID-19 diagnostics laboratory in June 2020.            

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became apparent that Sandia was up against a significant challenge — how would the Laboratories continue their mission-essential work, especially classified and laboratory work, during a stay-at-home order?

Despite pandemic restrictions, the Labs’ nuclear deterrence programs continued to be under tremendous pressure to execute modernization programs on schedule, explained Mike Hardwick, director of weapon systems engineering at Sandia’s California site.

“Our staff in the nuclear deterrence programs worked on-site through all but the first two weeks of the Laboratories’ response to the pandemic,” Mike said. “And since most of our work is classified, we needed our mission-essential staff to feel safe returning to the site and working around others.”

Meeting a critical need

Proven public health practices during a disease outbreak call for timely testing of those potentially exposed to the contagion, contact tracing to identify other individuals who may have been in close contact with the infected and quarantine or isolation to slow the further spread of the virus.

But the health care infrastructure was overwhelmed by the emerging pandemic, and demand for diagnostic testing from commercial and public health agencies was extremely high. Equipment and supplies were also in short supply. Available diagnostic testing was taking five to 10 days to return results, said Steve Casalnuovo, senior manager of biosciences and chemical defense.

“That was too long to be useful to Sandia,” Steve said.

In early March 2020, a team of bioscientists in the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense and Energy Technologies Center went to work to set up a federally registered diagnostic lab and develop a diagnostic test authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The goal was to provide a more rapid response and highly reliable diagnostic results for Sandia and Department of Energy personnel in New Mexico and California.

“This was no small feat,” Steve said. “It took a lot of work to convert existing research laboratories at Sandia into diagnostic laboratories. Research labs are creative; they’re flexible. They’re doing new things all the time. Diagnostics labs do the same thing over and over again. They do it really well and never get it wrong — because people’s lives depend on it.”

With critical support and guidance from the New Mexico Department of Health, Sandia was processing patient samples in their newly converted diagnostic lab three weeks after being directed to establish this capability by Sandia’s executive leadership.

Sandia has great expertise in biotechnology and biological research and development, and we’ve built that capability over more than two decades, Steve explained.

“I don’t know that anyone ever anticipated the need to apply that expertise to a public health crisis like this one, but Sandia had the technological infrastructure for doing molecular biology. That turned out to be critical for us to perform medical diagnostics,” Steve said. “Because we have trained personnel who are experts in the field, when it became apparent that the pandemic response was overwhelming the public health infrastructure, Sandia was able to redirect that expertise to meet a very critical need.”

COVID-19 diagnostic testing capacity was quickly expanded, and Sandia was able to offer testing not only to those who were displaying symptoms but to the asymptomatic as well. Testing was also available to members of the workforce at the Labs’ Livermore and Carlsbad sites, as well as to household members who had potentially been exposed to the virus.

Keeping Sandia operating

With an on-site diagnostics lab, most test results were processed and returned within 24 hours, enabling Employee Health Services to quarantine and isolate those testing positive for COVID-19 sooner, perform contact tracing and evacuate or decontaminate impacted facilities.

COVID-19 LABORATORY ANALYSIS — The COVID-19 Diagnostics team analyzes samples collected from Sandia and Department of Energy personnel in New Mexico and California, providing quick-response and highly reliable diagnostic results.  

“By performing our own testing, Sandia was able to provide reliable results to members of the workforce very quickly,” Steve said. “Imagine how ineffective it would be to conduct contact tracing or building evacuation and decontamination when you start that process several days after someone is tested, as opposed to one day after.”

“The biggest impact was certainly keeping Sandia operating and our national security mission moving forward,” Mike said. “Diagnostic testing by Employee Health Services and our biosciences group was a vital part of the safety framework that provided the assurance that staff needed.”

As a result, nuclear deterrence programs were able to meet all hardware commitments to their U.S. Air Force partners.

“Our modernization and stockpile stewardship programs have considerable national security work, and a fair portion of this work is classified and deemed mission-essential by our NNSA customer,” added Dan Fonte, director of stockpile systems and component engineering. “Diagnostic testing has allowed our personnel to conduct classified work on-site and meet critical deliverables.”

In total, more than 9,800 COVID-19 samples were analyzed from March 2020 to June 2021, identifying over 840 positive cases.

To ensure a safe and healthy work environment, Sandia’s testing program continues to address cases where there is a higher risk of spread. However, with the expansion of testing capacity at commercial laboratories, Sandia now contracts out all COVID-19 laboratory testing and analysis.

Regardless of vaccination status, those who have COVID-19 symptoms or who are required to work on-site and have come into close contact (within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period) with someone suspected or confirmed as COVID-19 positive should be tested. Sandia Medical testing coordination is also available for those who need to be tested before or after domestic or international business travel.

Members of the workforce should contact Sandia Medical before reporting to work to discuss the needed testing and follow-up.