Covid-19 Testing Centre set-up at Sandy Park

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By Mark Stevens

A new drive-through Covid-19 testing centre at the Exeter Chiefs’ home at Sandy Park will be able to test up to 12 patients and staff from the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (RD&E) every hour when it is at full capacity.

The facility, which is being operated on the RD&E’s behalf by healthcare charity Devon Freewheelers, will be vital in helping staff who are self-isolating or who have had Covid symptoms to return to work as quickly as possible.

Devon Freewheeler volunteers will be swabbing people in the safety of their own cars, and then transporting the samples to the testing laboratories at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Tests will only be by appointment through referrals from the RD&E – the facility is not open to the public.

The drive-through testing centre is part of a much wider testing strategy by the Trust. The RD&E is at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19, providing some of the most rapid testing for the virus available to hospitals anywhere in the UK.

Thanks to its cutting-edge microbiology facilities and its partnership with the University of Exeter Medical School, the Trust has been able to rapidly scale up its testing abilities. It is now testing all patients admitted to the hospital – and giving a positive or negative result for Covid-19 in 1 to 2 hours. NHS Staff in the hospital and the community are also benefitting from the improved testing capacity using high-throughput platforms in the laboratory.

The trust is also supporting Public Health England (PHE) in Covid testing throughout the South West, and has been commissioned to provide tests for the more than 2000 care home residents in Devon.

The RD&E is able to do this thanks to investment in state-of the art lab machinery – it is one of only four hospitals in the country that can provide the rapid Point-of-Care (POC)tests which are now being done 24 hours a day in the testing lab set up virtually overnight in its Emergency Department. At the same time, the University has provided its Genomics lab and two members of staff to help deliver the capacity to provide high throughput testing with 90 tests run every 90 minutes throughout the day, giving a result within 6 hours.

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RD&E Hospital Medical Director Adrian Harris says testing is at the heart of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak

Sian Ellard, Professor of Genomic Medicine at the University of Exeter, helped source testing equipment from researchers Dr Chris Scotton at the University of Exeter Medical School and from Professor Mike Allen at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Professor Ellard praised the close collaborative links between the Trust and the University saying, “The strong working relationship between outstanding clinicians and world-leading scientists in Exeter means we’re perfectly placed to lead the way in responding to international challenges of this nature.”

However, it’s not just about technology. The incredible amount of hard work and organisation required to scale up the testing so rapidly is down to the people at the Trust and its partner organisations, in particular the Biomedical Scientists and Support Staff in Microbiology.

Professor Adrian Harris, Medical Director at the RD&E also Head of Medical Services for the Chiefs, explains: “Testing for the virus is at the heart of our response to the Covid-19 outbreak. By testing all our in-patients and the residents of care homes we can minimise the risk of transmission, and by testing our staff we can make sure that we can help people return to work as soon as it is safe for them to do so.

“Clinical and non-clinical teams have worked around the clock, tirelessly and selflessly collaborating to provide an absolutely outstanding Covid-testing service. The staff in the Emergency Department will be staffing it 24/7 to ensure we maximise the testing capacity through the lab at all times.

“Our microbiology team have transformed their normal working patterns, providing a 24-hour service. They’ve optimised our existing analysers, introduced new technology, and worked with other scientists from the Genomics team to perform these tests, which are so essential in the fight against this virus. But all the science in the world is no use without the samples to actually test, and our Portering team has been superb in making sure that the test samples are collected and delivered smoothly from across the hospital.

“I want to pay tribute to all our staff and our partners at the University, and also Devon Freewheelers who have been helping to carry out the swab testing in the community and hospital. I would also like to thank the Exeter Chiefs for their generous help in providing the facilities for the drive through testing centre. It’s been an incredible collective effort, in the most challenging of circumstances.”

Helping to oversee the plans for the new testing centre at Sandy Park has been Exeter Rugby Club chief executive, Tony Rowe OBE, who added: “These are extremely challenging times for all of us and together the Chiefs and Sandy Park are proud to play our part in helping to protect frontline NHS staff and to support the Government’s efforts to restrict the spread of COVID-19.

“Being situated so close to the M5 motorway and other links roads into Exeter means the testing site will be easily accessible to those NHS staff from within the city and the wider community. The testing site itself is hugely impressive, making use of our main car parks, and is a great triumph of both team work and hard work.”

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