State lab officials seek uptick in COVID-19 samples, testing for omicron variant

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 2:54 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 2, 2021 at 4:51 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The omicron variant has health officials at the state lab in Richmond very busy. While it’s not been detected in Virginia at this point, officials at the state lab are working to make sure if omicron is here, they know about it.

“This is important because as we know what we’re dealing with now. When we see the emergence of a new variant, oftentimes, we don’t know a whole lot about it. So we want to quickly determine if we have a variant like omicron in our community,” said Dr. Denise Toney, director of the division of consolidated laboratory services.

Technicians spend hours carefully processing COVID-19 samples inside the state lab, mainly from community testing events.

“We’re figuring out every single base pair, every single piece of that DNA puzzle,” said Mary Toothman, sequencing and bioinformatics manager.

They’re trying to figure out which variants are circulating around the state, from pipetting to sequencing.

“We want to learn as much as we can about these variants. It’s important to know how they respond to the vaccine. It’s important to know how they respond to re-infections, and all this information allows us to make better public health decisions,” said Dr. Toney.

State lab officials say the omicron variant has up to 30 mutations, which scientists look out for. The director says they’ve now asked hospitals to provide positive samples to better screen for this new variant.

“We determine the actual nucleic acid structure of the virus, and by doing that, we can look for changes in the virus that are called mutations, and those mutations are what allow us to define and differentiate the different viruses,” said Dr. Toney.

Federal stimulus money is helping the lab too. The director says they’ve been able to invest in sophisticated equipment to test more samples. Right now, they are testing between 500 and 800 samples a day.

“This allows us to quickly triage samples and get them tested as quickly as possible so public health will have the data they need to make decisions,” said Toney.

Testing was down last week, but it was a holiday week. The state is seeing that number turn around as scientists keep a close watch. From the start of the pandemic, state lab officials say they’ve processed more than 200,000 samples.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

Send it to 12 here.

Want NBC12’s top stories in your inbox each morning? Subscribe here.