As more and more people are being tested for the coronavirus, lab technicians and microbiologists are working around the clock processing the specimens. Lab technicians are the forgotten heroes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. These highly skilled individuals are specially trained to test for the novel coronavirus, while ensuring the ever-changing processes are being met and quality measures are in place – all in an effort for patients to receive the correct diagnosis in the fastest possible timeframe.
Before the mass frenzy, the process for testing COVID-19 was very manual. Doctors or nurses swab a patient’s nose or throat and then send the sample to the laboratory for analysis. Once the lab got the sample, they organized it in a way where a technician extracted the RNA from the specimen. After the specimen was extracted, a microbiologist worked with the specimen to create a master mix that allowed them to test for the presence of the virus. A machine ran the test against controls to see if any of the specimens are positive. The total process, from receiving the test until getting the results took around four hours.
Testing remains among the most serious challenges with America’s response to the COVID -19 pandemic. On March 31, the country announced that it has collectively tested a million people—weeks behind the timetable repeatedly undertaken by the federal task force. In some cases, laboratories still do not have the proper supplies, reagents, and nasopharyngeal swabs. However, there are multiple high-level initiatives to halt the backlog.
In the last few weeks, laboratories across the globe started semi-automated testing at their diagnostic facilities. In some cases, laboratories were also shifting toward a fully automated process. These moves will allow lab technicians to go from processing 90 samples a day to hundreds and in the fully automated laboratories, 1,000 tests daily.
Who is doing testing?
There are currently four main types of labs performing coronavirus testing:
- the federally run Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initially handled all US testing (and was widely seen as a bottleneck early in the outbreak)
- public health labs run by states
- in-house hospital labs that are part of a broader health system
- commercial labs, such as ARUP, BioReference Laboratories, LabCorp, Mayo Clinic Laboratories, Quest Diagnostics, and Sonic Healthcare, which now account for the bulk of testing volume throughout the country
Laboratory professionals have had to make several modifications to adjust to coronavirus requirements. Technicians are working lengthy hours and several days nonstop to diagnose the presence of COVID-19. Additionally, lab technicians who normally work in certain areas of the lab are volunteering to help where the demand is highest.
These professions are on the very FRONT line of this pandemic. There is no one else who is man handling swabs of potentially infected patients. Now more than ever is for everyone to realize and appreciate laboratory personnel, including pathologists, scientists, technicians, accessioners and phlebotomists, many of whom have volunteered to administer field COVID-19 swab tests. The work that is being done by these individuals today should not be forgotten.