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South Dakota Public Health Laboratory on front lines of pandemic

Published: May. 6, 2021 at 7:57 PM CDT
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The South Dakota Public Health Laboratory was commissioned back in 1996. But until the pandemic, most people didn’t even know that it existed. Today, we get a rare look inside the lab to see how they’re working to keep you safe.

The nondescript exterior of the state health lab in Pierre belies the high-tech work going on inside the lab. Just last year alone, the lab did more than 53,000 medical microbiology tests, 54,000 environmental chemistry tests and 23,000 forensic chemistry tests. Now factor in the COVID-19 pandemic. South Dakota Public Health Laboratory director Dr. Timothy Southern says, “I personally did not anticipate the initial demand for testing. We rolled testing out in early March By March 8th, I believe, we had our first five positives for COVID-19. Not one, not two, but in our first day of positives we had five. From there, the floodgates opened and the demand for testing was very high.” Doctor Southern says his team quickly geared up and he says, thanks to some cutting edge technology, moved forward. “One of the things that the State Health Laboratory provides is the sequencing technology and the genomic sequencing so we can actually identify the variant from individuals who are being tested in our state. So specimens from all over the state will come to the State Health Laboratory. One of our team members here will process those specimens, sequence the viral genome and then can tell myself and our epidemiology team members the variants we’re finding here in South Dakota.” Southern says one of their goals was to get private labs up to speed in the testing program as well. And he says even with state of the art equipment, the people are critical. He says, “So you can have all the best equipment in the laboratory world but if you don;t have the best scientists and subject matter experts, none of that infrastructure, none of that equipment is going to mean anything. The true power at the State Public Health Laboratory is our team, it’s our scientists. It’s the amazing men and women who come here every day and power the science, that perform the COVID testing, the TB testing, the water testing, the forensic chemistry testing. The people are the most important part .”