2020 has come to an end. I think we can all agree that it’s been a year like no other! It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been merely “different.” In the lab, we have seen new things, had new challenges, and, despite the craziness of it all, have learned a few things along the way.
I think the word of the year in our lab and many others for 2020 would be “adaption.” We’ve had to adapt, change our thoughts and processes and be more creative. In the spring, in the first wave of COVID, many labs were struggling with procuring, validating, and performing new COVID tests. With the influx of cases and patients, particularly in some hard hit areas, lab staff were overwhelmed with an unprecedented increase in workload. In the hospital where I work, early on we had very few cases and the lab was impacted in the opposite extreme. With canceled elective surgeries and a huge drop in outpatient work, we found ourselves being asked to take flex time. Workload was down and techs were taking time off to help the lab and hospital adjust to the decreased revenue and to say within budget. Things were pretty slow and calm.
When surgeries resumed and physician offices opened back up, things were busier than ever. Everyone seemed to be coming in for lab work that had been pushed aside for months. In addition to an increased volume in our existing tests, we were bringing on new COVID tests. Procedures had to be written and signed off, validations had to be done and everyone needed to be trained on the new tests. We found ourselves faced with supply issues for the new tests and had to do some juggling acts to get new testing onboard. At the same time, we also had to deal with a lot of other “supply” issues. While the hospital as a whole has done very well to manage PPE distribution, the lab has had to get creative, reaching out to new suppliers for cleaning supplies, lab coats and gloves. Lab coats became and still are very difficult to keep in supply. We’ve gone colorful! We used to have blue gloves and purple lab coats, but now have multi colored gloves and lab coats all over the lab from multiple vendors.
Possibly the worst of our supply issues has been the lack of trained technologists. In a profession that is graduating fewer and fewer new techs, and as our work force is getting older, we have been experiencing a shortage of qualified Medical laboratory Scientists and Technicians across the country for a number of years. This past year, with the current pandemic, we have seen techs who were working way past retirement age decide to finally retire, and others taking early retirement. In the past 5 years I have worked in 2 hospitals that have continuously had revolving open positions. In 2020, om a large number of COVID cases amongst lab staff, but have had a few. We have had many more staff out on quarantine for 2 weeks at a time for exposures, sometimes several at a time. And, after waiting for months with elective surgeries on hold, the minute these were again allowed, we have had several staff on simultaneous leaves of absence for surgeries.
How have we compensated and adapted for these shortages and changes? At a time when visitors have been restricted in the hospital, we have found ourselves with a severe shortage of staff. We are also competing with other hospitals in the area in the same situations so are having a hard time hiring and keeping new employees. We have adapted by conducting Zoom interviews for hiring. We are in the middle of a big chemistry project bringing on new instruments and some of this training has also moved to virtual venues. ASCP and other organizations have held totally virtual conferences and symposiums. But, having been forced to implement these new technologies, we have learned new skills that can be used in the future to broaden our outreach and educational opportunities.
It has been a challenge to train new techs and to simply get the daily work done with ongoing staff shortages. Staffing has been at critical levels. We’ve been resilient. We’ve been creative. We have had to implement an On Call list to help fill critical holes in the schedule. This is not popular, and is still a work in progress, but has helped us to think of other ways to solve the problem at hand. Bonuses for working extra shifts have helped. We have relied on our great technologists to fill in extra shifts. I’m very proud of everyone working together. Team work is helping hold us together and get through this very difficult year!
I think If I had to find any “good” about this pandemic, I’d have to say it’s been the lack of commuter traffic, and the fact that all this talk about COVID testing has shone a little light on our profession. Yet, with all the talk of “testing,” even though the general public has some concept of lab testing, they still know very little about the profession and the people doing these tests. They may recognize the terms PCR, and antigen and antibody but we’re still a hidden profession. What can we all do? Talk about the profession in your community. Community groups, high schools and community colleges often welcome speakers, and now you can even do it online! You’ve all heard people talking about antigens and antibodies and PCR, but you can tell them about the profession and the people who work with these tests every day. It would be very hopeful to say that this pandemic could highlight the Medical Laboratory profession to the point where students would be filling our programs and we’d see a new interest in the field.
Did we ever think this would last this long? in the spring, making hundreds of masks, I thought making holiday masks would be fun. But then I thought to myself, “ I won’t need to make Halloween masks or Christmas masks.” I never thought we’d still be wearing masks at New Year’s! But masks have become so normal that we have even gotten used to them. I took a cold walk a couple days ago and thanked the mask for keeping my face warm!
2020 has had many ups and downs, many challenges. I am proud to say that Medical laboratory professionals have lived up to those challenges and we can and should feel good about our accomplishments and contributions to fighting this pandemic. We’ve been resilient, we’ve adapted and we’ve grown. We’re on a roller coaster ride but we’re still holding on. Hold on tight and wear that mask!
-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.