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Laboratory professionals play important role in fight against COVID-19

Image of Military health personnel wearing a face mask prepares COVID-19 test samples. Click to open a larger version of the image. 30th Medical Group Medical Lab Technician Air Force Staff Sgt. Cody Emery prepares a COVID-19 test sample for processing April 8 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California (Photo by: Michael Peterson, 30th Space Wing ).

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Medical Laboratory Professionals Week recognizes the behind-the-scenes work laboratorians do to generate clinical lab results and, ultimately, guide the courses of treatment for patients throughout the military and civilian health systems.

The week, April 18-24, holds special significance this year as labs throughout the Defense Health Agency have been a key contributor to the fight against COVID-19.

Within military medicine, the laboratory community consists of officers, who serve as lab managers, technicians, who are doing the actual testing and reporting or "lab work," and civilians, who do everything from sample collection to management.

"My mission as a lab officer, and the mission of the lab community as a whole, is to ensure timely and accurate reporting of results," said Lt. Col. Paul Nelson, chief of the Air Force Medical Service COVID Lab Team at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, located at DHA headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. "Our job is to take the samples, run tests and get the results back out in a timely manner, and those results have to be accurate. That encompasses everyone who works in the laboratory."

Nelson explained that the pandemic hasn't changed the overall job description of the lab technician or the steps that are followed to obtain accurate results, but it has most definitely changed what they are testing for and their ability to test for it.

"What happened at the beginning of the pandemic is that COVID testing became priority No. 1," Nelson said. "We went from having absolutely zero COVID testing capacity to being able to provide roughly 200,000 tests a week if we needed to."

Getting to this point required a lot of work behind the scenes, Nelson said, including acquiring testing machines, training technicians how to use them, learning how to correctly take and store samples, and quickly and correctly reporting results.

Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Aramatou Toure, Navy Clinical Laboratory Improvement Program manager at the Center for Laboratory Medicine Service, also located at DHA headquarters, said the amount of work has also increased.

"I would say our workload has almost tripled here," said Toure. "The Clinical Laboratory Improvement program deals with certifying new sites for testing. Since COVID began we've obviously had an increase in labs that needed to be able to test for it."

Nelson noted Medical Laboratory Professionals Week provides much-needed recognition for the laboratory community, especially this year.

"The highlight this year is "laboratorians get results," and honestly that's what it all boils down to - we have the job of providing accurate and timely results so that medical decisions can be made," Nelson said. "Without the lab, you don't have the diagnoses. You don't have, "this person is positive for COVID and therefore they need medical intervention."

Toure agreed.

"This time around, it has an extra importance," said Toure. "Lab techs have been working around the clock during this pandemic to meet the testing requirements and accomplish the mission, and we've done it and are still doing it."

The spotlight has been on COVID-19 the past year. The work that medical labs do in the discovery and subsequent treatment of other conditions, however, shouldn't be overshadowed.

"Without the lab, you also don't get the cancer diagnosis or any other medical condition you can think of that has laboratory testing as part of the workup," Nelson said.

Although the past year has challenging, the opportunity that the lab community has been given to make a difference has made it worth it, according to Nelson.

"What we do is very challenging in normal times and COVID has stressed us, but also allowed us to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done for our patients and for the country," Nelson said.

And, he noted, the lab community is beginning to focus on the future with an eye on the immediate past.

"As we've gotten the enterprise healthy and gotten to a place where we've been able to come up with standard guidance, we're already in planning mode for the next pandemic - what worked, what didn't work - and we want to have those plans in place and ready to go at a moment's notice," Nelson said.

Manning is central to being ready for what could potentially come next.

"We need enough lab techs and enough lab officers to handle the workload," Nelson said. "If you don't have the people, you can't do the testing."

Another key element to readiness is the rapid adaptation of new technology, he said.

"From manning to training to the machines used for testing and making sure we have the correct personal protective equipment - any of these can be a limiting factor," said Nelson. "Now we have an idea of where we need to be and how rapidly we can go from zero to 200,000."

Nelson emphasized that, as simple as it may seem, without laboratories and lab personnel, there would be no way to identify issues and determine what actions need to be taken.

"That sample that a lab tech is generating is somebody's result, and that result means something to that patient," said Nelson. "That patient could be you, your mother, your brother, or your best friend, and you want assurances that that lab result is the highest quality result it can possibly be. That only happens when that lab tech is there and has the training, standards of care, processes, and equipment and supplies in order to do that testing."

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