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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

State caps virology lab's tests of swine flu specimens

Advertiser Staff

The administrator of the State Laboratories Division is having the virology section perform less testing on swine flu specimens in an effort to better balance the workload.

"I don't want folks to get the impression that we're just a swine flu lab," Dr. Chris Whelen said. "We're much more than that. ... We need to back up from that immediate infectious disease problem ... and start looking for the next big thing that may show up.

"There is a lot of concern about the next influenza season," he said. "It takes resources to be prepared."

The lab on O'ahu receives 120 to 150 specimens a day for testing, but since swine flu is the predominant circulating strain, it is no longer necessary to subtype all of them.

Whelen said he has directed the virology section to test no more than 42 specimens a day, with the excess going to the Biological Response Laboratory for testing.

The swine flu work grew after the first cases of the disease were reported in Hawai'i in May. The state Department of Health has reported four deaths associated with swine flu, while the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Islands' swine flu count has risen to 1,424.

Dr. Sarah Park, head of the department's Disease Outbreak Control Division, said the lab has been stretched thin by the swine flu outbreak, and now it has to deal with the state's economic woes.

"We're going through the same thing the rest of the state is," Whelen said. "It's a real challenge."

He said the lab has 81 civil service positions and 16 exempt federally funded positions. He lost five positions four from O'ahu and one from the Big Island district lab in the budget process. About five vacant positions for chemists and microbiologists have been frozen.