Medical technologists and clinical laboratory professionals are the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic and the public is beginning to notice

Medical technologists (MTs) and clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs) are the foundation of every successful clinical laboratory. But they seldom make the news. Therefore, it is worth noting, during this COVID-19 pandemic, when clinical laboratory professionals receive public recognition for the important role they play in fighting the disease.

A news story published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), titled, “Lab Tech Who Found B.C.’s 1st Case of COVID-19 Recalls ‘Sheer Terror’ of Discovery,” describes a laboratory technologist’s experience in British Columbia when she discovered the Canadian province’s first positive case of COVID-19 in January of 2020.

Finding COVID-19 for the First Time

On January 27, 2020, Rebecca Hickman, Public Health Laboratory Technologist, Molecular Biology and Genomics at BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) was carefully monitoring samples for COVID-19 and fearing a positive result for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus when her worst fear appeared before her eyes.

“I actually started to see it get positive within a few seconds,” Hickman recalled. “My first feeling was sheer terror, from a personal point of view.”

When Hickman realized a sample was going to test positive, she called Tracy Lee, Technical Coordinator at BC Centre for Disease Control and co-designer of the BCCDC’s COVID-19 test. Hickman had to interrupt Lee in a meeting, who then hurried to the lab to watch the test complete. It was a definite positive, the first confirmed case in British Columbia.

“To design, validate, and implement a molecular laboratory test usually takes months if not years, and so to do that in the span of days is a huge achievement,” Hickman told the CBC.

The following day, it was announced to the residents of BC that the COVID-19 coronavirus was in their province and that they needed to start taking necessary precautions. “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever found things out before I read it in the news,” Hickman said.

Supply Shortages Challenge British Columbia Clinical Laboratories

Hickman noted there have been several challenges in dealing with COVID-19 over the past year. “The instability and craziness of it all has been the hardest part,” she said. Last spring, the BC lab, like most labs, had to deal with a shortage of supplies and personal protective equipment.

According to BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) data, as of March 2, 2021, there have been 81,367 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province of British Columbia. A total of 75,255 of those individuals have recovered from the coronavirus, more than 300 patients remain hospitalized, and 1,365 British Columbians have perished due to COVID-19. The population of the western Canadian province is approximately 5.1 million.

Today, Hickman, spends a majority of her time in the laboratory doing whole genome sequencing of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The data she collects is used for outbreak response and for tracking new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that are appearing in different parts of the world. “It has been easily the most difficult year of my life, but also the most fulfilling,” she told the CBC. “What we have achieved here over the last year is huge.”

B.C. Centre for Disease Control in British Columbia, Canada, researchers Tracy Lee and Rebecca Hickman
In their laboratory at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in British Columbia, Canada, researchers Tracy Lee (above left) and Rebecca Hickman (above right) “are designing new tests to quickly identify variants of the COVID-19 virus,” North Shore News (NSN) reported. Now, wrote NSN, “the pair are working on a new type of ‘rapid test’ that will be able to detect ‘variants of concern’—particularly the U.K., South African, and Brazilian variants—at the same time as determining if a test is positive for COVID-19. When it’s finalized, that test is expected to dramatically speed up the process of hunting the variants.” (Photo copyright: North Shore News.)

Clinical Laboratories on the Front Lines

Last year, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) produced a docuseries titled, “Laboratories on the Front Lines: Battling COVID-19” which highlighted the critical work clinical laboratories are doing to care for patients during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The five-part series interviewed medical laboratory professionals across the US about their experiences during the pandemic.

In one episode, Stephanie Horiuchi, Clinical Microbiology Specialist at UCLA Health Systems, discussed how challenging and rewarding it has been working on the pandemic.

“Very long days. I’m not going to lie. Very, very long days, but it’s rewarding. I know the importance of what I am doing, and I know the importance of what needs to be done,” she said. “So, the time that I am here, it does go by very fast. You look up at the clock and you’re like oh, its 9pm. And then when I go home, it’s just eat and go to sleep and then rinse and repeat.

“I feel that this is a really important area of work that we all do as microbiologists,” Horiuchi continued. “And to just serve patients every day and to know that I am helping someone, it really warms my soul.”

In another episode of the docuseries, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Alyssa Ziman, MD, Division Chief, Clinical Laboratory Medicine at UCLA Health, was interviewed regarding how they are coping with the increased demand for medical laboratory services.

“It’s been a really difficult and challenging time for our health system, for our laboratories, for our staff that are working through to provide the best possible patient care,” she said. Ziman is also Medical Director, Transfusion Medicine, at UCLA Health and Medical Director, Clinical Laboratories, at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “Every day is a new challenge and a new way to adapt to changing rules from the CDC and from the LA County Public Health Department and to really evolve, so that we can continue to provide the testing that we have and continue to support our staff and our patients.” 

Unsung Heroes of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a strain on medical resources throughout the world. Clinical laboratory professionals are emerging as the unsung heroes of the crisis and the entire medical laboratory profession is receiving much deserved positive recognition for the crucial role laboratories are playing in fighting the pandemic.  

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Lab Tech Who Found B.C.’s 1st Case of COVID-19 Recalls ‘Sheer Terror’ of Discovery

Who is Doing All Those COVID-19 Tests? Why you Should Care about Medical Laboratory Professionals

Laboratories on the Front Lines: Battling COVID-19

BC COVID-19 Data

Variant-Hunting Researchers on the Cutting Edge of B.C.’s Race Against COVID