Bearing the weight of COVID-19 numbers

COVID-19 has impacted both medical laboratory science students and professionals in positive and negative ways, but the pandemic may hold a silver lining for the future.

Ryan O'Byrne - 24 June 2021

At the start of her final year in the bachelor of science in medical and laboratory science post-professional certification program, Deeanna Saran expected to meet up with classmates, jump back into the lab and finish off her post-diploma degree in style. After moving to Edmonton from Kelowna, B.C., in September 2019, Saran was eager to get started on a hands-on research project and hone the skills she’d need to excel as a medical laboratory technologist. Unfortunately, Saran’s time on campus was cut short.

“When the pandemic hit, I just didn't go back to campus,” she says. “Looking back, it’s really sad that I didn't know March 12 would be my last day on campus. I was stuck in my apartment for the remaining month and a half of the Winter 2020 semester and then moved back home to complete the remainder of my degree online.”

Laboratory materials

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta, several new words and phrases entered our common vocabulary; words like “lockdown,” “contact tracing” and “social distancing.” One word in particular rose to the forefront: testing.

By the end of the first week of April, Alberta had completed nearly 69,000 COVID-19 tests, with Alberta Health Services (AHS) reporting more than 1,600 tests being completed in 24 hours. By the end of November, provincial laboratories were completing almost 16,000 tests per day. Currently, the province is reporting that it has run nearly five million tests in total.

And it's not like all the other tests that lab techs normally would do stopped, says Lisa Purdy, director of the medical laboratory science (MLS) program and assistant dean of graduate student affairs in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

“Last year, AHS continued to do the same amount of influenza testing they have always done,” she says. “Even though they barely had any influenza confirmed, that doesn't mean they didn't continue to test for it every week. So then we added in a situation where we're doing anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 extra tests for COVID a day.”

“When Dr. Deena Hinshaw stands up every day and reads out the COVID numbers, the weight of those numbers is on the shoulders of a lab tech.”

Laboratory materials

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially difficult for the medical laboratory science sector. Both students and employed technologists alike have, like many in health, faced significant stress as efforts to vanquish the virus have continued to move forward at breakneck speed. Purdy and Saran each note that burnout is high among laboratory workers, exacerbated by an ongoing national shortage of medical lab technologists.

The lab-tech shortage has been an issue for nearly two decades. In January 2000, the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science raised the alarm about a nationwide shortage within 10 years. By 2019, right before the pandemic hit, the organization was releasing nearly monthly news releases about staff shortages and the impacts they were having across the country, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Then came the pandemic.

“At this time last year there weren’t staff that had the skill set to do COVID testing, so they were pulling people from other areas to help,” says Purdy. “In the beginning, physicians were asked to only order lab tests they absolutely needed, and techs with the right skill set were seconded to COVID testing. And that worked for a while.”

“But then testing had to open back up again, and that became the pressure point. Some techs were doing their day job and then also working on COVID testing. So just like what we saw in frontline health-care workers in an ICU, there were huge amounts of stress, burnout and long hours and lots of feelings of responsibility."

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, two small silver linings have emerged for MLS from the clouds of the pandemic.

The first is that medical laboratory science has been thrust into the spotlight on a global scale, and the profession’s importance in the medical ecosystem is beginning to receive some of the attention that many medical laboratory professionals feel it deserves.

“I think the pandemic has positively impacted our profession in that it has increased awareness of what exactly we do,” says Saran, who is graduating as part of the Spring 2021 convocation. “It's not just the case that they take your swab and the nurses do your tests. The sample is then sent to the laboratory and extracted in order for the virus to be detected by polymerase chain reaction.”

“I now have both family and friends, who never had an interest in what I was doing before, suddenly asking, ‘Are you involved with this COVID testing?’ And so I tell them, ‘Well, no, not right now, but I can tell you what the lab techs who perform the testing are doing.’”

“It makes me happy to know that people are starting to identify our profession as part of the health-care team, that it’s not just nurses and doctors but much more than that.”

The second silver lining is that the national shortage and ongoing pandemic have created incredible opportunities for new MLS graduates. For example, Purdy says the MLS program currently has the highest employment rate, pre-convocation, ever.

“You can't add 10,000 to 20,000 tests a day in the province without having a workforce to run those tests,” she says. “A lot of our students are going into COVID testing jobs, either at a private lab or at Alberta Precision Labs. We also have a lot of the students getting jobs on the pretesting side related to COVID after they finish their clinical training.”

Saran, who was already working as a medical laboratory technologist at Kelowna General Hospital before beginning the post-professional certification MLS program, agrees. “Many of my classmates have gotten permanent positions at the provincial laboratory in Edmonton,” she says. “Many of these new positions have opened because of the expansion of the COVID testing capacity.”

“Just recently my manager and I were catching up in her office and she asked me if I knew of anyone in my graduating class interested in working at the hospital, to let her know,” Saran says. “There are quite a few external job postings, some of them permanent that they're looking to fill here, so I think my classmates should not have a problem.”

Laboratory materials

COVID-19, or another pandemic like it, is expected to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. As a result, medical laboratory sciences will continue to be vital parts of the health-care system in identifying, tracking and ultimately stopping the spread of viruses, prompting health authorities across the country to adjust in kind.

“The interior health authority in B.C. has essentially prepared for this to be around for a long time,” Saran says. “When new positions in the COVID-testing department were created, they were permanent. So I think Interior Health knew they would need extra laboratory technologists for the foreseeable future.”

The evolving landscape has prompted the MLS program at the U of A to make adjustments as well. In addition to a program overhaul that began in 2020, Purdy says that the program has begun adding different options for students to expand their skill sets, such as in bioinformatics and expanded molecular genetics.

“We're trying to position graduates of the future to have some more of these skill sets that are going to lend themselves to managing viruses like COVID,” says Purdy. “All areas of science and medicine have advanced so quickly and the lab is part of that.”

“Ultimately, we're all really proud of all our graduates, that they had the resiliency to make it through what was not an easy time for them,” Purdy says. “Their clinical training was paused in the spring of 2020, their senior year was so different. But they've made it through. We’re so proud that they're all going to be out there and contributing.”