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Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest’s Lab staff of only 4 people processes hundreds of chlamydia and gonorrhea samples, every day.

Jean (the lab manager), Delbert, Katrina, and Trenae are front-line witnesses to the increase in STI rates in San Diego and beyond.

The Lab tests all the samples from San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial counties; samples are urine, vaginal, endocervix, urethra, pharyngeal, or rectal.

The number of samples coming into the lab has greatly increased over the last two years: 1000 per month used to be the rate. But this past March, they tested 2000.

After a shipment of samples comes in, Katrina and Trenae check them.

“Our job is to weed out bad specimens,” Katrina said, “And then to give the testable ones to the scientists.”

A bad specimen, she said, would be one “that is broken above or below the black score; it needs to be directly on the score.”

The non-testable rate for all our health centers combined is only about 1%! But Mira Mesa health center gets a special shout-out: They currently have the lowest error rate.

Katrina and Trenae enter the specimen/patient information. Then…the Panther is loaded. 

The Panther does “Nucleic Acid Amplification” — DNA testing. It has to be operated by clinical laboratory scientists (Jean and Delbert), according to strict state guidelines.

Before the Panther, there was the Tigris.

The Panthers were a definite upgrade: Once the Tigris process was started, it had to be left alone for hours. With the Panther, samples can be added.

“I like the Panther because of this access,” Jean says. “We can add samples and reagents during the process.”

Jean has been the lab manager since 2010. On the 4-person team, Jean and Delbert are the scientists who physically operate the two Panthers. 

A Panther can process up to 250 samples at once (248 patient samples and 2 controls), and this takes approximately 6 hours. 

After the Panther is finished, it puts out a report that shows the positive and negative results. They review the results, record any issues, and run Q&A reports.

After all results have been checked, they are approved and sent to Case Management; that team then contacts patients with their results.

The entire system is one of careful checks and balances, with each member of the 4-person team moving skillfully around each other to process samples efficiently and accurately.

“I like that in the whole picture, we’re contributing to the community so that patients can get the care they need,” Jean said. “We also are contributing to public health statistics.”

“The service we provide helps a lot of people who depend on us,” Delbert said. “With the Panthers, we can do more than we did before, and it makes us more flexible. If the Tigris was down, it was down the whole day. Now we can run another one, because we have two Panthers.”

Katrina and Trenae have both been working in the Lab since it opened in 2006.

“My favorite part is just being here, working together, problem solving. Helping,” Katrina said.

Each of the four is very cognizant that the Lab is a team in the midst of many — all teams leaning on and helping each other.

“Everyone works together and supports each other,” said Trenae. “All the teams are super-duper nice to us. 

“I like that we’re making a difference in someone’s life,” Trenae continued. “You treat the specimen as if it’s your own — the same way you’d want your own to be treated. We don’t have patient contact, but the specimens are like our patients.” 

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