At Minnesota's state-of-the-art public health laboratory near the state Capitol, there's little outward sign of the pressures of analyzing hundreds of samples to see if they may be swine flu.
But behind the tall glass windows of the sleek, $60 million building, lab workers are working intently to determine the first cases and help prevent the spread of H1N1 influenza A - a new strain that has sickened people in 19 states and around the world.
"We're strained and stressed. We're putting in long hours," said Dave Boxrud, molecular epidemiology supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health. Lab scientists will be working throughout the weekend as they examine samples; so far, Minnesota has one confirmed case of swine flu and one probable case.
"We're been preparing for this for years," Boxrud said.
Minnesota prides itself on being a leader in safeguarding public health. In January, Minnesota health and agriculture officials determined that a salmonella outbreak that had sickened hundreds of people around the country and was blamed for several deaths was linked to peanut butter. Last summer, Minnesota lab workers helped link jalapenos to another nationwide salmonella outbreak.
The molecular lab - which is part of the public health laboratory - has seven employees, but up to 20 people are helping out during the swine flu outbreak, Boxrud said.
While seasonal influenza had run its course, swine flu is diverting some staffers from their normal activities, such as examining air filters for signs of bioterroism, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's "BioWatch" program. Some other programs are being put on hold temporarily, Boxrud said.
As of Friday morning, the lab had processed about 300 samples, Boxrud said. The lab is running three batches of samples a day, with five hours needed to run a batch.
Despite the influx, Health Department spokesman Doug Schultz said the lab is not backlogged.
"We've got capacity to run more than we're currently testing right now," Schultz said.
Minnesota's first confirmed case of swine flu was in a person associated with Rocori Middle School in Cold Spring. In that case, the sample was sent to Atlanta, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed it was swine flu. Eight more probable cases - three from Hennepin County and one each from Dakota, Wright, Polk, Isanti and Scott counties - have been sent to the CDC. By Saturday Boxrud expected to have from CDC a kit that will allow the lab to run its own test for the illness.
Minnesota's old health lab was once near the University of Minnesota, and the agriculture lab was across town in a converted office building. In 2005, the two labs moved into the new, high-tech building.
Clinics and hospitals around the state send samples of suspected swine flu - taken from a nasal swab of a patient's upper respiratory system - to the health lab. In a sterile area, the samples are opened and a small amount of the specimen is prepared for molecular testing, which happens in a suite of three rooms.
Workers extract RNA from the sample, amplify it by making copies of the nucleic acids, then examine the product for the presence of nucleic acid. Certain nucleic acids are unique to influenza. An "extraction robot" - acquired specifically for widespread outbreaks - can handle up to 96 samples at once, speeding up the process.
"It's the only way we could keep up," Boxrud said.
In one room, behind a wide glass window, lab scientist Gongping Liu sets up a probable influenza sample for sequencing. Wearing blue gloves, he uses a pipettor - like a giant syringe - to withdraw a small amount of liquid from a microcentrifuge and inject it into a tiny tray. Once he's done, Liu hangs up his white lab coat and washes his hands.
The rooms are bright white, with scattered bits of color, such as the red biohazard liner on a small trash container. Refrigerators and freezers line some rooms, and away from the suite is a room with ultra-cold freezers (94 below zero to 112 below Fahrenheit) where samples of unknown disease can be stored for years. The room requires three different security passes to enter.
Schultz, the Health Department spokesman, said the department is managing the outbreak with its existing recources, "but we know if the outbreak continues or escalates, we'll need additional funds."
And while anything from flooding to a hepatitis outbreak stresses the department, Schultz said, "This is something we've prepared for."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)