New machine increases COVID-19 testing capabilities at Hazel Hawkins Hospital

Panther Fusion System processes up to 120 patient samples at one time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of statistics. In a single day, a California county can drop from the red tier (substantial) of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy to the purple tier (widespread), where citizens are told to quarantine for two weeks if they have traveled outside their region.

Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital has yet to become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, but that could change in an instant as it prepares to turn on its new Panther Fusion System, an automated molecular testing instrument capable of processing up to 120 patient samples at a time. The new analyzer will improve the hospital’s in-house testing capabilities, according to Bernadett Enderez, director of laboratory services.

“We are currently sending most of our COVID-19 testing specimens to a reference laboratory,” she said. “Once COVID-19 testing is performed in-house, the results would be available faster and this would greatly help our county public health with contact tracing.” 

The Panther Fusion System cost $241,000 and was financed through a grant from the Hospital Preparedness Program awarded by San Benito County Public Health Services as the fiscal agent responsible for facilitating purchases of appropriate supplemental COVID-19 emergency preparedness items.

The analyzer is capable of performing standalone COVID-19 testing, combination testing for COVID-19 and influenza, and respiratory infectious disease testing.

“In the future, we would be doing tests for cervical health and sexually transmitted infections,” Enderez said, adding that it’s different from other testing methods conducted one at a time that can take hours or days to get results. “It can process up to 120 patient samples in any assay combination at a time and would enable our lab to run over 1,000 tests in 24 hours. It also eliminates the need for batch testing as samples can be loaded at any time.” 

The analyzer is projected to be fully operational by the end of December or early January, and Hazel Hawkins staff will need to be trained to use it. That preparation comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Nov. 30 that he is considering issuing another statewide stay-at-home order in purple tier counties if cases continue to surge.

Of the state’s 58 counties, 51 are in the purple tier, the most restrictive. Newsom said the seven-day average of new daily cases in California was 14,657 on Nov. 30, compared to 9,881 per day in July.

As of Dec. 1, there are 1,929 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in San Benito County, with 36 new positive cases and six reported cases of people being hospitalized. The hospital has a total of 25 beds, with 15 of them dedicated to surgeries and other medical procedures.


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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]