A Dallas lab has been testing for coronavirus for weeks. Here’s what its busiest month was like

Daniel Serinaldi has handled some of the world’s deadliest and most infectious organisms.

The microbiologist and bioterrorism expert has worked for more than 10 years at the Dallas County public health lab that tests virulent pathogens.

It was Serinaldi who handled a specimen from Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed in the United States in 2014 with Ebola, one of the world’s deadliest viral diseases. Serinaldi drove the sample in a government car to Austin for testing at the state lab, the nearest federally authorized facility to test for Ebola at the time.

He handled the emergence of the Zika virus here in 2016. He also worked on the 2012 West Nile virus outbreak and before that the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

Serinaldi, 39, is now director of the COVID-19 testing lab for Dallas County Health and Human Services. The lab, which includes four scientists and a technician, is part of the emergency response network of public health laboratories that reports to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The lab and others like it help make up the front-line health care system in the United States that is currently bearing the brunt of the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has become a global public health crisis.

“Our DCHHS lab has been, and will continue to be, one of the most critical elements of our community response to COVID-19,” Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s director of health and human services, said Thursday.

“They stood up the first local COVID-19 testing in the state of Texas and have been working late nights and weekends since the start to try to turn around these important test results,” said Huang, who described Serinaldi and others at the lab as “true front-line heroes that you won’t always think about or hear about.”

Dallas County COVID-19 lab supervisor Daniel Serinaldi stands in the bioterrorism laboratory, which is part of the federal Laboratory Response Network, at the Dallas County Health and Human Services building on April 7. This lab has a 24-hour turnaround time for analyzing COVID-19 test kits for high-contact individuals, such as nursing homes residents, medical staff and first responders. “We test less kits, but we have a higher rate of positives,” Serinaldi said. “But, we would hope it has more impact because of the types of cases we’re testing.” (Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Because health care workers caring for the sick are constantly at risk of contagion, the lab’s first priority is to handle the coronavirus testing of any doctors or nurses who need to know quickly if they’ve contracted COVID-19.

As an example, Serinaldi said, if an oncologist were to become sick with COVID-19, you wouldn’t want the doctor spreading the virus on the cancer ward and risking the health of already immune-compromised patients.

But you wouldn’t want to keep a much-needed doctor on the sidelines for a week or more while waiting for the results of the test.

Fast results

So labs, like Dallas County’s, ensure the test results are available within 24 hours — and often within three or four hours, he said.

“We’re looking at the highest-risk individuals and the most likely infected individuals, and we want to get them a result within 24 hours,” Serinaldi said. “Other options out there might not give you as rapid a result.”

The lab also tests first responders, the police, firefighters and paramedics whose jobs require them to be put in the community, where they are at a daily risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

And because of the vulnerability of older people, the lab is also testing residents in nursing homes where the coronavirus has been detected.

“We concentrate on what makes the largest public health impact,” he said.

One of the reasons the lab can do rapid turnaround is that it limits its testing. Their samples come from hospitals or other local medical facilities.

“You wouldn’t want to come down here and ask for a test,” Serinaldi said.

They don’t do surveillance testing, which is testing of the general population for COVID-19. Currently drive-through testing for the public in Dallas County is done at American Airlines Center and at Ellis Davis Field House in Red Bird.

A sample COVID-19 test kit lays on a table at the Dallas County public health bioterrorism laboratory, which is part of the federal Laboratory Response Network, at the Dallas County Health and Human Services building in Dallas on April 7.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Since the beginning of March, when coronavirus testing in Texas began, the lab has conducted about 1,000 tests, Serinaldi said. That comes to about 30 to 40 tests a day.

Public frustration over the lack of widely available rapid testing has grown during the coronavirus crisis. But part of the problem, said Serinaldi, is the shortage of laboratory testing supplies, such as reagents for COVID-19 testing. Reagents are the chemicals that make it possible to extract genetic material from swabs and test whether the virus is present.

The COVID-19 lab could probably do as many as 150 tests today if the laboratory supplies were available, he said.

Right now, to continue at its pace of testing, the lab tries to maintain a several-month supply of materials, Serinaldi said. Switching to a different testing method wouldn’t help matters because demand would quickly exceed supply, he said.

“The more people hear about a test, the more people are going to buy that test, the more reagents will quickly become short,” he said.

Busy month

Even with his experience of responding to public health emergencies, this crisis has been unlike any other, Serinaldi said.

The Dallas Morning News recently visited the lab that Serinaldi runs for a look at how Dallas County tests for the virus. The lab is in a windowless basement of an eight-story former bank building across Interstate 35 from the Medical District in Dallas.

On this day, researchers examining samples for the coronavirus work inside a specially designed biosafety cabinet. Others are doing the important clerical work of logging in and logging out samples with information required by the lab’s clients, including epidemiologists tracking the virus in the community.

The Dallas County lab is part of the Laboratory Response Network, which includes 10 public health laboratory facilities around Texas. Even before the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the network handled urgent health needs.

“We respond to public health emergencies,” Serinaldi said. “That’s what we do here.”

Other coronavirus testing sites are located in hospitals or private labs.

The lab’s other major responsibility is to test those people who have unknowingly been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. To do that, the lab works closely with its epidemiology department, which helps track down those individuals, a process known as contact tracing.

“We want to break the chain and stop the infections from moving forward,” he said.

Dr. Dongyoung Shin creates a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) plate of destroyed samples of the COVID-19 virus at the bioterrorism laboratory at the Dallas County Health and Human Services building.(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

He doesn’t see the information about race and ZIP code of individuals tested — those details are compiled by the county’s epidemiology department, located in the same building.

Decisions of whom and where to test are made by Huang and the county’s chief epidemiologist, said Dr. Edward Bannister, director of the county lab for the past 25 years.

The lab, which totals 15 employees, is meanwhile still handling its other responsibilities, including testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea.

“It’s great we have someone like Daniel who can respond rapidly in a situation like this,” Bannister said. “There’s a whole lot going on in the rest of the lab, too.”

Safety protections

As a biosafety level 3 laboratory, its design and operational procedures must meet strict standards. Level 3 laboratories are sealed and air passes through various cleaning filters and workers wear personal protective equipment.

Employees receive extensive and rigorous training and undergo risk assessments and security clearances, he said. “We know very well what we should and shouldn’t be doing,” Serinaldi said.

“What we do here is probably the safest testing that you’ll find,” he said. “What you do outside, whether at the grocery or wherever, that could carry more risk.”

Serinaldi, who grew up in south New Jersey, wore a simple polo shirt, jeans and Nike sneakers when he sat down for an interview with The News.

The casual attire masks a workload that has never been busier.

“March was one the longest months I think I’ve ever worked here,” Serinaldi said.

He’s married with two small children and lives in Arlington. After being cooped up all week inside the lab, he loves to spend time outdoors, especially in his backyard, where he recently put in a new lawn and flowers.

He also grows fruits and vegetables, including peppers, strawberries, onions and pumpkins.

“I do about 12-to-16 hours of gardening over the weekends. Like I just hit it hard,” he said.

It is a small bit of normalcy in a world in the grip of a microscopic organism.

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