Two months ago, Arizona and the rest of the country were mired in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests.

Test results were taking weeks to process and laboratories and government officials were facing public criticism.

In Arizona, Dave Dexter, the president and CEO of Sonora Quest Laboratories, the largest diagnostic lab in the state, attended a meeting with state public health officials who asked for what seemed like the “impossible”: The production of 60,000 COVID-19 tests a day.

“I had no idea how we could possibly get to 60,000 a day, so I went home and had what I call one of my white wine nights in my career — this is my 21st year as CEO and I have the battle scars to prove it,” said Dexter, who recently spoke to Chamber Business News about the company’s sprint to place Arizona at the forefront of testing in the nation. “But through those experiences, I’ve learned there’s always a solution and you just have to keep your brain open to different possibilities.”

“Operation Catapult” was launched 

That night Dexter devised Operation Catapult to make it happen.

Within 48 hours, he pulled together a $10 million deal with a “verbal handshake” with several partners including Banner Health, the largest hospital chain in the state, EuroImmun, a world leader in manufacturing medical diagnostic equipment, the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS), and others.

Everyone began working 24/7 to increase production of tests, said Dexter, who also serves as general manager of Quest Diagnostics, the world’s leading provider of diagnostic information services. Sonora Quest and its partners launched into a massive effort to purchase equipment, set up manufacturing lines and supply chains, hire 215 new employees, and take other measures to ramp up production of tests and test results.

Arizona capacity now exceeds demand 

Within days, Sonora Quest had eliminated a 65,000-test backlog. By Aug. 4, its COVID-19 testing capacity exceeded demand, the only lab in the U.S. able to be able to make that claim, company officials said.

And as of Monday, it was providing test results for both antibody and COVID-19 tests within 48 hours, they said.

With new manufacturing lines being put in place, Sonora Quest is on target to produce 60,000 tests a day by the end of August or soon after. That will help position the state for virus surges in the fall, Dexter said.

“We’ll make Arizona one of the most productive testing states — bar none — in the country,” he said.

Employer solutions 

As testing stabilizes, Dexter is preparing to meet new milestones.

One is the launch of a new Employer Solutions program to help companies bring back employees safely. Among the services offered to employers will be:

-Streamlined lab ordering

-Mobile diagnostic services for on-site testing and testing of homebound patients

-Greater access to testing statewide

Next on the list: contact tracing, daily testing at nursing homes 

Dexter also wants to work with agencies that do contact tracing to help slow the spread of the virus. Contact tracing involves locating all of the people who have been in contact with a patient who tests positive for the virus so they can be quarantined if needed.

Daily testing at skilled nursing facilities is another goal Dexter is advocating for. Earlier this year, Sonora Quest worked with the Arizona Department of Health Service to get residents and staff tested at all 147 skilled nursing facilities. More needs to be done, he said.

“I have a passion for long term care and I think it’s underserved in many ways,” he said.

Dexter said he and his team are waiting on guidance from state agencies and Banner Health to

prioritize specific groups for testing, particularly for residents at long term care facilities, assisted living and other places where highly vulnerable citizens live.

Finally, the question of education looms as another challenge, Dexter said. How to provide some form of testing for teachers and students, even if it involves targeting specific groups that are more at risk of spreading the virus.

“Whatever it takes in this pandemic, we have to find a way to serve all Arizonans.”

About Sonora Quest Laboratories

Sonora Quest, an independently run joint venture between Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics, is the nation’s largest integrated laboratory system with approximately 3,500 employees serving more than 26,000 patients every day across Arizona. Unlike national diagnostic laboratories, it provides a continuum of care for all sectors of the healthcare industry. As the market share leader in clinical laboratory testing in Arizona, it performs nearly 90 million diagnostic tests per year.

To view its daily testing data, visit: Daily COVID-19 testing.


This story was originally published at Chamber Business News.