Upgrade set for Stanislaus County lab tests

Stanislaus County will upgrade its public health lab with sophisticated equipment to test for H1N1 influenza and potential bioterrorism agents.

Tuesday morning, supervisors approved $376,585 to buy and install a polymerase chain reaction system for the laboratory in the Health Serv-ices Agency complex on Scenic Drive in Modesto.

The technology can provide answers for public health officials within hours, such as whether a patient has H1N1 or whether a suspicious powder mailed in an envelope is laced with anthrax.

At present, the county must rely on regional or state labs in other counties for sophisticated testing.

It usually takes five to seven days to obtain H1N1 test results from a lab in San Joaquin County, but the new system will provide results within 12 hours, said Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County's public health officer.

"It is really an all-hazard lab," Walker said. "We have had law enforcement and multiple agencies advocating for this."

Homeland Security funding will cover the $281,585 in equipment costs. It's expected to cost $95,000 to expand the lab to house the equipment. Public facilities fees and Health Services Agency funding will pay for construction.

The polymerase system detects DNA to identify bacteria or viruses that are making people sick.

It can identify illnesses such as nor-ovirus, whooping cough, severe acute respiratory syndrome, food- borne illness, antibiotic-resistant staph and meningitis. Without the equipment, it takes days for the lab to grow cultures for recognizing organisms.

There are 36 public health labs serving local jurisdictions in California. Even though Stanislaus is the 17th largest county in the state, its public health lab is one of the 14 unable to perform H1N1 testing, a staff report said.

The county still must hire a contractor for the renovations and has to install the equipment. The system should be operating by the end of 2010, officials said.

The microbiologists who work in the lab are capable of running the equipment, so no additional staffing is necessary, Walker said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.