Illawarra Shoalhaven pathology workers under the pump during testing times

Southern IML Pathology's molecular laboratory uses PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, currently the gold standard for diagnosis of COVID-19. Pictures: Adam McLean
Southern IML Pathology's molecular laboratory uses PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, currently the gold standard for diagnosis of COVID-19. Pictures: Adam McLean

Remember the queues at COVID testing clinics south of Sydney last Wednesday as news of a new Wollongong case emerged?

Many residents faced waits of seven hours or more, as test collectors did their best to keep up with the heavy demand throughout the day and into the night.

At the very end of the line were the pathology workers - working rotating shifts around the clock to analyse the thousands of tests and get the results out to everyone within 24 to 48 hours.

It was a massive feat for these often unsung heroes on the COVID frontline - many of whom who'd been called back to work from holidays.

It was a pressure point in a year like no other for these staff, including those at Wollongong's Southern IML Pathology which has one of the only private testing labs in the region. Wollongong's public hospital also has rapid testing on site.

Laboratory manager at the Denison Street clinic Ranjeni Rajah said while labs were used to times of high demand, like during busy flu seasons, the past year had been relentless.

Southern IML Wollongong laborary scientists including Stephanie Ivkosic, Abbey Davison and Hannah Bowen have been hard at it since new Wollongong COVID cases were announced last week.

Southern IML Wollongong laborary scientists including Stephanie Ivkosic, Abbey Davison and Hannah Bowen have been hard at it since new Wollongong COVID cases were announced last week.

"We've been busy before - for instance with the swine flu of a few years ago where we also had to gown up - but nothing at this level," she said.

"What we're seeing here is people who don't even have symptoms being tested - they may be a close contact or have been at a particular venue - and we've never experienced that before.

"But we are all very passionate about the work we do in looking after the health care of the community. Each and every one of us is also a member of this community so we take it very personally."

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With three confirmed Wollongong COVID cases in the past week, demand flared again - particularly last Wednesday.

"It was an extraordinary day - we quickly extended our hours and had to call staff back in off leave to help with the queues, working past midnight to test as many people as possible," Southern IML patient manager Narelle McCann said. "The private providers worked with the public health system to ensure there were as many testing sites available as possible.

"People have been fantastic, they want to help stop the spread. And we've had local businesses drop off food at our drive-through sites for our workers. There has been some frustration due to the long queues, but most people understand we are doing our very best."

The benefit of having an on-site lab at Wollongong, is that samples don't have to be sent to Sydney which saves time - and gets those results back quicker.

Having an on-site lab at Wollongong ensures samples can be tested as quickly as possible.

Having an on-site lab at Wollongong ensures samples can be tested as quickly as possible.

"Once we get the swab at our molecular testing lab we enter all the patient information and then the extraction process is done with our scientists wearing full personal protective equipment," Ms Rajah said.

"Once extracted the sample is put into the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) system which reads the result, which is then verified and authorised by the scientist."

Demand has slowed since last week, but the team are ready for any surge, any time. "We realise the important part we play in collecting, and testing and trying to stop the spread of COVID," Ms McCann said.

This story 'Extraordinary day' for often unsung heroes on COVID's front line first appeared on South Coast Register.