Great Lakes Labs

Syndromic testing | QIAstat-Dx

Quick pivot enables lab to serve community during pandemic

1 February 2021

All local recommended safety guidelines followed at the time of interview.

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended in Northwest Indiana, USA, Great Lakes Labs president and CEO Michelle Volk redirected her lab’s focus from forensics to clinical medicine to provide her community with rapid, accurate testing, and peace of mind.

When coronavirus struck, CEO and president, Michelle Volk, knew that the company would do whatever they possibly could to help their community – but she wasn’t quite sure how as a forensics laboratory. As a third-generation lab enthusiast, Volk has spent her life learning about forensic science and serving coroners as well as local and regional law enforcement agencies in the Indiana suburbs. “Back in March, it looked pretty grim for our community. It looked pretty grim for our state. It looked grim globally. One day we were actually on our way to do a big collection of DNA at a local county complex and as we were on the drive over, I just kept thinking: What can we do? What can Great Lakes Labs do? We don't do clinical testing. We’re a forensic facility. We don't do RNA isolation,” says Volk. But inspiration struck shortly thereafter.

How to do her part in overcoming the pandemic was prompted by an event that affected local first responders in Volk’s community. As someone coming from a background of first responders, the call for help from a local sheriff resonated with her. The sheriff had a COVID-19 outbreak in his jail and didn’t know how to keep his officers safe and healthy in the face of potential spreading, particularly in such closed quarters. Waiting weeks or even days for accurate test results was simply out of the question. After Volk received the call she consulted with her management team. She decided the best way she could help was to transition from a forensics laboratory to a clinical setting able to provide quick turnaround times for COVID-19 testing.

When COVID-19 struck in United States, CEO and president of Great Lakes Labs (GLL), Michelle Volk, knew that she wanted to help in any way possible. She placed her trust in the QIAstat-Dx system to test for a wide range of pathogens, not just SARS-CoV-2, to help provide fast answers and peace of mind to her community.
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I just kept thinking: What can we do? What can Great Lakes Labs do? We don't do clinical testing.
Michelle Volk, CEO and President of Great Lakes Labs

From forensics to clinical

“When I decided to transition the lab from forensic to the COVID-19 testing, it was extremely, hectic and stressful, but at the same time very rewarding. We allowed our community the ability to rely on a regional lab for a quick turnaround time and a bevy of information that was going to allow the clinicians to understand exactly why someone was ill and whether they had, or had not, contracted COVID-19,” says Volk. “What we were seeing with the testing across the country and monitoring is that it was taking days, up to weeks, for a result to be returned to the clinician,” says Volk. First responders and the frontline-workforce were hit hard and were often prevented from showing up to work for fear they might have COVID-19, even when they did not. Asymptomatic cases were quite frequent, making testing nearly impossible even if someone did have the virus.

Volk was moved by helping a young family in which the wife and mother had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. Since the husband was a first responder, they would need to find outside childcare for their infant and toddler if the wife needed to quarantine. “Receiving her positive test results so quickly meant they were able to make alternate arrangements promptly,” she says. “This is the type of community service I wanted Great Lakes Labs to be able to provide, and thanks to QIAGEN, now we can. Testing lets our customers know with confidence when it is safe to let their employees return to the workplace,” Volk continues. About 40 percent of Great Lakes Labs’ COVID-19 testing has been done for healthcare clients and about ten percent for members of the public. It’s these cases that have struck a special chord with Volk. “It’s been wonderful to bring peace of mind to members of the public who want to visit vulnerable relatives without the fear of introducing the virus,” she says, including out-of-town family members who wanted to know if it was safe to visit elderly or immunocompromised parents and relatives. 

Great Lakes Labs president and CEO Michelle Volk
Growing up with a police detective as a grandfather and a forensic toxicologist as a father, Michelle Volk credits these two important figures in her life with steering the direction of her career. Continuing the legacy her dad and grandfather set in motion has been her drive from early on, one which she proudly continues by serving the community through her work in their honor.
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What we were seeing with the testing across the country and monitoring is that it was taking days, up to weeks, for a result to be returned to the clinician.
Michelle Volk, CEO and President of Great Lakes Labs

Quick response for COVID-19

Having learned about QIAGEN through using the QIAamp DNA Mini Kit as part of Great Lakes Labs’ pharmacogenomics expansion in 2018, Volk called QIAGEN to ask for advice. Volk determined that the QIAstat-Dx automated PCR-based testing system would let Great Lakes make the rapid pivot needed. “We were able to validate the QIAstat-Dx’s results in less than five days,” she says. “It became a very easy decision once we learned how sensitive and specific the QIAstat-Dx is and how easy it is to use.” That ease of use turned out to be an important benefit, given that the COVID-19 pandemic precluded in-person QIAGEN training. “We ended up not needing formal training on the QIAstat-Dx, given our extensive experience,” Volk says of her 11 employees, who include her husband, Rick. “What we did instead was to read up on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a refresher on working with RNA, since our forensics work is DNA-based.”

Volk appreciates the QIAstat-Dx system's 72-minute end-to-end runtime, but it was the amount of information the system provides that convinced her. The QIAstat-Dx Respiratory SARS-CoV-2 Panel test kit rapidly differentiates the novel coronavirus from 20 other pathogens implicated in respiratory syndromes. “It’s hugely beneficial to be able to test for that wide range of pathogens,” Volk notes. “Ruling out COVID is helpful, but so is the chance to correctly identify other illnesses so physicians can treat the patients and their symptoms appropriately.”

Great Lakes Labs
Michelle Volk founded GLL in 2003, where she continues to serve as president and CEO accompanied by her trusty labrador dog, Gerti, every day. GLL initially had a forensics focus, and since March 2020, GLL has offered rapid coronavirus testing to employers and the community members.
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It was a very easy decision once we learned how sensitive and specific the QIAstat-Dx is and how easy it is to use.
Michelle Volk, CEO and President of Great Lakes Labs

Continuing a legacy

Volk learned about forensic science early on from her father and grandfather and credits them both to steering her career path. In the executive offices at Great Lakes Labs their portraits are hung up and facing each other from opposing walls, where the images are proudly displayed in their honor. She recalls how, at the age of ten, she and her sister would help her father by assembling rape collection kits for his lab for a nickel a piece. Years later, Volk was preparing to start law school when her father asked her to spend the summer interning at his crime lab in Gary, Indiana. “I learned early the power of forensics and how it can help communities,” she says. “The variety of lab disciplines and the melting pot of minds in a lab were so intriguing that I never left.”

As the only child in a family of seven to follow in her father's footsteps, continuing to offer a service to the community has been vitally important to Great Lakes Labs and Volk’s life work. It’s clear how much family and community mean to her, a fact highlighted by her brother recently joining the team as the Chief Strategy Officer to help reach more people in need. “This business is very family oriented,” says Volk. “I think that it is family oriented because of the way that we practice here. We change lives every day with our testing.”

Great Lakes Labs
The QIAstat-Dx system is the only sample-to-result syndromic testing platform with bidirectional LIS connectivity and the ability to export Ct and endpoint values. Volk explains that “it’s hugely beneficial to be able to test for that wide range of pathogens. Ruling out COVID is helpful, but so is the chance to correctly identify other illnesses so physicians can treat the patients and their symptoms appropriately.”
In need of accurate and timely clinical insights for your patients?
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