COVID-19 Laboratory Safety: The Wrong Conclusion?

In the classic Barry Manilow song, Copa Cabana, the singer admonishes his audience at the end not to fall in love. We are told to avoid love because some guy named Rico might exterminate our loved one and we will end up a drunken barfly like Lola in did in the song. It’s a pretty funny conclusion when you think about it. If you were the victim in the story though, you might draw the same conclusion, however flawed. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, laboratorians are seeing people draw incorrect conclusions as well, and some of those assumptions are leading to some potentially unsafe practices in some laboratories.

It’s easy to understand and even to forgive any misconceptions. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. The virus is new, it has spread very quickly, and there are unknowns about its make-up and mode of transmission. The situation has changed rapidly, and agencies like the CDC have had to change safety recommendations almost daily at times. Couple that with a media that by its nature uses fear and drama to ensure continued viewership, and people everywhere are going to make some fast decisions, and not all of them will be good.

One example of a change in guidance came from the CDC. At first, they were very careful not to give out any more information for lab safety than what was posted on their COVID-19 web page. When asked if typical lab specimens (blood and urine) from COVID-19 patients could be transported via a pneumatic tube system, they said that all specimens should be hand-carried to the lab. Since many patients were asymptomatic and many more could not be tested because of kit shortages, that would basically mean that all specimens in all hospitals would be carried to the lab. Before hospitals could react or even find the information, the CDC changed its recommendations. Only respiratory specimens from these patients should be carried directly to the lab (https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dls/locs/2020/transport_recommendations_for_covid-19_specimens.html), blood and urine can safely be transported. Given what is known about viruses and other pathogens in blood, walking all specimens to the lab doesn’t sound like a necessary guideline, does it? But this judgement in guidance simply illustrates what can happen when a situation changes rapidly.

With the push for the need for COVID-19 testing, news has come out about specimen collection kits and new and faster testing platforms. Not everything that has been reported has been factual. Every night we see numbers of cases and mortality rates reported in the media. Mathematically, one cannot determine a mortality rate without knowing the total number of patients’ cases. If there aren’t enough test swabs and reagents, and if we don’t test those who are asymptomatic (estimated to be about 25% of cases), how can we calculate any kind of accurate rate? Some laboratories have been pushed to bring on testing, and with little experience with brand new instruments, there has been work performed in some locations without adequate PPE or other safety measures. Look at your testing platform. Review the steps to see if there are any potential aerosol-creating steps. Are the correct PPE or engineering controls in place? Now more than ever it is vital to adhere to lab safety regulations while paying attention to the latest COVID-19 safety guidance. If you feel there is work being performed without adequate safety protection, escalate the situation as soon as possible. There will be no one to run teste if all of the laboratory staff becomes sick.

In many locations, hospitals have responded to the shortage of N95 respirators and surgical masks by developing methods to decontaminate and reuse them. While that is an innovative idea, make sure the system in place has physical and biological checks in place to ensure the reprocessing is effective. Spot test disinfected N95 respirators by performing fit-testing with them as batches are reprocessed. Use a biological indicator to ensure the COVID-19 virus particles have been eradicated. Do not reprocess N95 respirators used for protection against tuberculosis unless it is certain the disinfection process is known to effectively destroy TB bacteria.

Sometimes we come to the wrong conclusion, and sometimes mistakes are made, even in the world of science. But we are human, and we have to come to terms with that or we might end up alone in a disco like the aforementioned Lola. That’s why it’s important that we stop for a moment and pause, especially when an event occurs rapidly and transforms the very environment where we work. Take the time to ensure safety measures are in place for everyone involved. If something doesn’t make sense, question it. Examine it, and work with your staff as a team to make sure we can do what we are called to do- to safely perform lab work in order to provide quality results for the patients we serve.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

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