When the COVID-19 testing surge hit the core laboratory at Providence Regional Laboratories in Portland, Oregon, in early 2022, lab director Alec Saitman, PhD, DABCC (CC, TC), didn't hesitate to step in.
"Within a week, we went from having fairly good staffing and manageable volumes of incoming COVID tests to a high volume of tests and low staffing," says Saitman. When he spoke to the lab manager, it was clear staff were headed toward burnout. "The manager felt people might start quitting."
Saitman is a medical laboratory technologist by training but hadn't been on the bench for six years or so. Still, he described the decision to get trained as a "no brainer." Putting his meetings about the COVID-19 testing crisis on hold for a few weeks, within two hours he was trained to aliquot incoming COVID-19 samples to prepare them for testing.
It's a simple task, he explained, but one that is completed manually as Providence Regional doesn't have an instrument that can automate this process—similar to many clinical labs across the US. This manual process creates a bottleneck because COVID-19 samples come in as swabs in a tube of viral transport media that must be aliquoted and barcoded before they can be tested.
Each patient sample takes about one minute to aliquot and barcode, in addition to verifying that the patient information is correct. At the peak of testing, Saitman's lab was receiving about 2,200–3,000 samples a day, so that one minute per patient rapidly becomes 41 hours a day of work just to intake new samples, he says. In all, his lab had multiple medical lab assistants dedicated to this task.
Saitman remained on the bench for nine days to keep COVID-19 testing going in the lab while staff were out with COVID-19 or had to stay home to care for family members with COVID-19 or children who had to stay home from school.
Some may ask why Providence Regional didn't just hire additional staff to help with the influx of COVID-19 samples, but Saitman explains that hiring has been difficult during the pandemic.
“We can't just hire new people when we have testing surges,” he says. “We can't even staff the jobs we have open for medical technologists, so how can we find assistants on such short notice?”
"All hands on deck, actually means, all hands on deck.”
In addition to being able to support his staff, Saitman says the time on the bench reminded him of his laboratory training and allowed him to make a direct impact on his community by providing patients with results sooner. “This is why I got into lab medicine,” he says, “I was a PhD chemist, but laboratory medicine gave me a way to directly impact patient care.”
Saitman posted about his experience on LinkedIn and received many kudos from other lab directors and peers in the medical lab community. “I wanted to remind lab directors that they are qualified to work on the bench and that is the best way to help your staff,” he says. His post has also helped increase public recognition of the essential work of laboratorians, who in many ways are undervalued by the current health care system.
The Omicron testing surge has passed in Portland, but Saitman says he is ready to step in again whenever the next surge hits: "All hands on deck, actually means, all hands on deck.”