Working all hours cranking out flu tests

Early outbreak raises demand

January 02, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

On the outside, it's a nondescript factory in a Cockeysville industrial park, its simple logo - a capital B and D - visible from Interstate 83.

Inside, though, they're not making power drills. This BD, despite the common misconception, is not Black & Decker, the Towson-based tool company that has laid off hundreds in Maryland.

At this BD - Becton, Dickinson - employees are working double shifts and pulling weekend duty, and temporary workers are being called in to help meet the unprecedented demand for what has been rolling off the medical technology company's assembly line at a feverish clip: flu tests.

"We've already made as many so far this season as we made all of last season, and the demand is still strong," said Michael Meehan, president of BD Diagnostic Systems, one of a handful of companies nationwide that manufacture flu test kits for use by doctors, hospitals and medical laboratories.

With the outbreak of flu getting an early start this season, and rising to near epidemic proportions, those companies have been swamped with orders for the tests, which can determine in 30 minutes if a patient has influenza and whether it is A or B strain.

BD's flu test product, Directigen, is one of many diagnostic devices manufactured at the Cockeysville plant, which also makes tests for chicken pox, strep throat and sexually transmitted diseases. Normally, the plant employs about 450 people, and the flu tests make up less than 2 percent of the factory's workload.

But this winter has been far from normal.

"This is the strongest flu season we've seen since we launched these products," said Nancy DeSesa, plant manager for rapid manual technology, as box after box of the 20-test kits were filled, labeled, inspected and then stacked in bigger boxes, headed for the company's distribution center.

"These will probably get shipped tonight," she said. Most of the kits go to hospital laboratories.

Flu tests, while not new, are being used more often, partly because antiviral medications are now available to help combat confirmed cases of the flu, partly because of the escalation of flu cases - and flu fears.

Each year, flu affects 10 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population, and more than 30,000 Americans, mostly elderly, die from the virus. This winter's outbreak, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say, is widespread, heading for epidemic proportions and leading to deaths not just among the frail and elderly, but also among otherwise healthy children.

For assembly-line workers like Carole Brocato, those cases bring a sense of importance to what might otherwise seem a menial task.

"It's especially difficult when you think of the kids that are dying," said Brocato, who has worked at BD Diagnostics for 30 years and last month started working double shifts. Brocato, like most employees at the plant, recently got vaccinated against the flu at work.

BD does not make flu vaccines, or anti-influenza drugs, but as with the companies that do, this winter's flu scare has sent demand for their product to an all-time high.

The company began producing tests for the A strain of the flu in 1990. In 2000, it began marketing the version that tests for A and B strains. The A and B tests sell to doctors and laboratories for about $25 each.

Rapid flu tests are not 100 percent reliable, and not always called for, doctors say.

While the test can usually detect the flu no matter how far along it is, the antiviral drugs that might be described after a test are generally only effective when administered within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Each of the Directigen test kits contains 20 plastic triangles, each with two clear windows. Doctors or lab technicians, after taking a specimen from a patient - usually either by a nasal swab or nasal wash - apply it to a membrane in the triangle and begin adding a series of nine solutions that, when mixed with the specimen, create a chemical reaction.

Fifteen minutes later, the results show up - a purple triangle appearing in the top window if influenza A is detected, a purple triangle in the bottom window if influenza B is detected, or a minus sign in the window if neither is found.

The more widespread use of the tests, said DeSesa, is a result of the size of the outbreak, and its potential lethality to some. "For the young, the elderly and those with immune system problems, it's important to determine early if they have it, or if they don't, so doctors will know whether they need to look down a different avenue."

Traditionally, said division president Meehan, treatment for the flu has been "stay in bed, get lots of rest, drink lots of fluids. I think they're doing a little more testing now because there are anti-influenza drugs available, and for those to be effective, you have to confirm the diagnosis and administer them early."

Several years ago the CDC issued an alert to physicians, saying testing, while it needn't be done on all patients, should be done in cases where anti-influenza drugs are going to be prescribed.

BD Diagnostic employs about 1,700 people in its plants in the Baltimore area. The parent company, Becton, Dickinson and Co., is headquartered in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and is better known for some of its other products, including ACE bandages and thermometers.

Meehan said the flu has yet to hit BD employees in Maryland in any numbers, though he had heard of some employees whose children were sick.

"I'm not sure if the it's the flu or not," he said, "but something's going around."

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