Titans of Testing: Molecular Diagnostics Lab Hits One-Year Anniversary of Testing for Covid-19

A year ago today, Albany Medical Center ran its first in-house test for Covid-19. The region—and the world—were in a tailspin, as the medical establishment scrambled to learn how to care for patients suspected of having the mysterious virus. And the first step in knowing how to do that, of course, was confirming positive diagnoses.

Testing was---and remains---of paramount importance in Covid-19 patient care.

And Albany Medical Center was well-positioned to lead the charge.

“PCR is the gold standard in Covid testing,” said Vice President of Hospital Ancillary Services Meghan Weygant, of “polymerase chain reaction tests,” which determine the presence of infection by analyzing samples for genetic material from viruses.

For decades, the Molecular Diagnostics Lab has been running PCR tests at Albany Medical Center for numerous conditions that include HIV and some genetic diseases.

“The lab is quite experienced at developing tests, so all the pieces were in place to develop a new test for Covid,” Weygant explained. “With extraordinary effort from dedicated employees, the lab was able to provide a test within weeks of Covid hitting Albany.”

Some of the materials needed to build Covid-19 lab tests in those early days of the pandemic were hard to come by. This didn’t deter Director of Molecular Diagnostics Kathleen Stellrecht, PhD, and Molecular Development Specialist Vincente Maceira, who created and validated the first Covid-19 test used at Albany Medical Center by analyzing Covid-19 genetic material provided by the New York State Wadsworth Laboratory.

In the year since, the Medical Center has expanded its testing capabilities and processed more than 104,000 Covid-19 tests. At the height of the pandemic, the lab’s staff was processing up to 800 samples a day, all while maintaining their usual workload.

“We were able to pivot, in part, because a lot of people delayed going to doctors’ offices during the start of the pandemic, so there were fewer of our ‘regular workday’ samples coming in,” Weygant said. Still, the staff expanded, bringing back two retired lab techs, recruiting additional staff and working around the clock.

“An awe-inspiring group of people are behind this effort,” said Weygant of the 41-member team, comprised of molecular diagnostics and microbiology technologists, lab info techs, supervisors and directors.

They have processed tests for Albany Medical Center patients, staff and members of the community—doing overflow testing for area hospitals as those hospitals built their own testing infrastructure.

Their work continues today, and while the Covid-19 landscape in our region is changing, thanks, in large part, to the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine, this hardworking team remains laser-focused on the people they are serving, Weygant said. “When they receive a sample they know there is a person behind it—a person who really needs an answer,” she said. “And they are bound and determined to get it for them.”