WINCHESTER — When the COVID-19 pandemic started taking root around the region, one man at Winchester Medical Center – Microbiology Manager Jaime Delgadillo – initially was tasked with leading the hospital’s testing effort.

“Jaime was pretty much running the show in March [and] April,” said Lab Director Dr. Joe Litten.

But working 14-hour days, seven days a week was too much for one person, and Litten said it quickly became essential that they pull together a team to help Delgadillo not only manage testing materials but also field calls about COVID-19 from other departments.

“This task was huge,” said Katie Dyer, a histotechnologist at the hospital. “I couldn’t understand how Jaime [Delgadillo] was doing it.”

She said she helped Litten pull together more people for the COVID-19 Lab Team, which started with eight and now has 14 staff members working full-time to run tests, maintain the lab’s inventory and answer calls that come in from around the hospital.

The team became the go-to for everything related to COVID-19, Dyer said.

“And then the phone calls just started pouring in,” she said.

As hospitals started postponing nonessential procedures to reduce the number of people coming to the hospital during the pandemic, staff members from various hospital labs who had less of a workload were able to contribute to the new virus response team.

The hospital could also place people where they were needed instead of furloughing them, Delgadillo said.

He said the lab team is composed of people with various specialties, personalities and backgrounds, “working together to give the patient the ultimate benefit.”

Now, more than three months into the pandemic, Dyer said the team filters information about the virus coming from physicians, patients, the Virginia Department of Health and outside testing facilities like Quest Diagnostics in Chantilly.

Besides handling all the information, the team also has been working on improving response times for COVID-19 tests.

Two testing machines at Winchester Medical Center have made a big impact on the time it takes for the community to get results from COVID-19 tests.

At the beginning of the pandemic, patients often had to wait five to seven days for results of COVID-19 tests, said Dr. Nicolas Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at WMC. Now they’re getting results after only a few hours.

“People in the building are getting same-day tests,” he said.

This significant improvement has been made possible by many factors, he said, such as the combined efforts of hospital providers and the hospital’s virus response team to get more personal protective equipment for staff and lab supplies for studying the virus.

“It’s been a great, great team effort,” said hospital pathologist Bob Dillingham.

The implementation of lab equipment such as the hospital’s Panther and Cepheid molecular testing machines also make testing samples a much quicker process.

The Panther, which now handles most of the coronavirus tests for the region, was previously used mainly to analyze samples to test for human papillomavirus and other infections like trichomoniasis, Litten said.

The two machines handle about 150 tests a day, he said. Another 100 tests are sent to the Quest lab, but Restrepo said it’s the hospital’s goal to be able to run all the tests onsite in the coming weeks.

While making strides in how they handle the pandemic’s progression, the team is finding new ways every day to respond to changes as they happen.

One of the earliest ways that scientists around the U.S. were aided in their testing of COVID-19 patients was by using research from previous strains of coronavirus, like the SARS-CoV-1 virus in 2003, Dillingham said.

COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2.

“I think the team has done a remarkable job,” Dyer said. “Our main focus is just to make the testing better.”

Contact Josette Keelor

at jkeelor@winchesterstar.com