Scientists and Staff at the Front Lines of Public Health

Photo of Health Dept.'s Lab staff.

Most recently it has been Zika and Ebola. But the list also includes Lyme, Rabies, tuberculosis and food-borne outbreaks, among many other scary public health threats.

At the front lines protecting our community from these diseases is the Fairfax County Health Department’s Laboratory. It is the largest public health laboratory in Virginia, performing more than 200,000 clinical and environmental tests annually.

“You never know what the next outbreak or public health emergency will involve or when it will strike, so we must always be prepared to act on a moment’s notice.”Deborah Severson, Director, Fairfax County Health Department Laboratory


The Lab Team

Located at the JoAnne Jorgenson Laboratory in the city of Fairfax, 12 scientists perform testing in nine laboratory testing suites. Two supervisors, a management analyst, three administrative assistants and three couriers complete the team. “Everybody plays an integral part,” says Severson.


What They Do

The labs are divided into four areas:

Clinical: Human samples are analyzed for immunology, chemistry, microbiology and screened for drugs of abuse. Testing aids in the diagnosis of diseases of public health interest, including sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, Hepatitis B, food-borne outbreaks and tuberculosis (one-third of Virginia’s diagnosed TB cases are in Fairfax County).

Environmental: Drinking water and stream sample testing takes place here. An EPA-designated Certified Drinking Water Laboratory, it also supports the county’s stream monitoring program by providing bacteriological and inorganic monitoring of county streams.

Rabies: Animal tissue is tested for the virus. Because of the disease’s risk, the rabies laboratory is accessible only to staff who have been vaccinated against the rabies virus. The lab provides 24-hour turnaround time for rabies testing in animals to prevent individuals from receiving unnecessary rabies post-exposure shots.

Molecular: Mosquito pools are tested for West Nile virus and Zika virus and ticks are tested for Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. Molecular testing supports the Health Department’s Disease Carrying Insect Program.

When samples are received in the laboratory, staff sort them by test request and enter all specimen data into the Laboratory Information System, generating unique bar-code labels for each specimen. The samples are then stored at the appropriate temperature until testing can begin. Each day, the scientists gather their samples, calibrate instruments and perform quality control checks prior to testing the samples.

The final reports are sent to the ordering clinics and the Health Department’s Communicable Disease Unit. Information on reportable diseases is sent to the state.


The Lab Clients

The Health Department Lab’s long list of clients includes neighboring jurisdictions and:

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