Representatives from almost 50 different clinical laboratories, professional associations, and societies came together this week to align efforts to expand the supply and retention of qualified laboratory scientists
FORT WORTH, TEXAS—Last week, representatives from a broad cross section of clinical laboratories, lab and pathology associations, public health laboratories, and lab regulatory bodies gathered specifically to identify ways to expand the number of skilled lab professionals.
COLA organized the “Workforce Action Alliance Summit,” a one-day gathering of key clinical laboratory stakeholders who share a common interest in developing initiatives that would directly increase the number of individuals choosing to pursue a career in laboratory medicine.
This is not a new problem, as the lack of trained laboratory scientists across all scientific disciplines has been acute for many years.
Call to Action
In a communication sent to invited participants, COLA’s CEO, Nancy Stratton, and COO, Kathy Nucifora, described the objective of the summit, writing:
“Clearly a call to collective action is required if we are to address the impending clinical laboratory workforce shortage. The past three years have demonstrated the significance of a resilient laboratory infrastructure, not only for the daily care of millions of Americans, but also during the global pandemic. The numerous efforts currently underway to resolve the shortage are unquestionably a component of the solution. Many, however, believe that these efforts are insufficient to close the gap between the projected number of new entrants into the profession, the rate at which those currently in the profession are departing, and the future demand for laboratory testing.”
Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report was a participant at COLA’S workforce summit. The Dark Report regularly profiles clinical laboratory organizations that have developed innovative and productive initiatives designed to increase the number of students choosing to train as medical technologists (MTs), clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), medical laboratory technologists (MLTs) and other skilled lab positions.
In materials distributed at the summit, the ongoing gap between demand for skilled lab professionals and the supply was illustrated thusly:
“The US Department of Labor estimates 320,000 bachelors and associates degreed laboratory professionals are working in the United States. If each of those professionals worked a standard 40-year career, the natural annual attrition of 2.5% would require 8,000 new professionals to maintain their current numbers. This exceeds the current output of accredited educational programs by more than 1,000 annually.”
Case Studies of Success
Over the course of the day, participants at the summit heard about the successes of certain laboratory organizations designed to get more students into training programs, supported by the educational courses required for them to become certified in their chosen area of laboratory medicine. These case studies centered around several themes:
Obtaining funding specifically to establish an MT/CLS training program to increase the number of candidates in a region. One example involved ARUP Laboratories and its success at working with a local Congressional representative to get a $3 million federal grant funded as part of a larger legislative package.
The medical laboratory scientist (MLS) program at Saint Louis University (SLU) worked with Quest Diagnostics to launch an accelerated bachelor’s degree program. The 16-month program combines online academic courses with intensive hands-on learning and clinical experiences in Quest’s Lenexa, Kansas, laboratory. The first students in this accelerated degree program began their studies in the spring semester of 2023.
During the afternoon, working groups addressed ways that lab organizations can collaborate to increase recruitment and retention of laboratory scientists across all disciplines of lab medicine. This input was synthesized into action planning for the three priorities that can lead to expanding the lab workforce.
By day’s end, several working groups were organized with specific next steps. COLA is taking the lead in managing this initiative and giving it momentum. All clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists are welcome to participate in the Workforce Action Alliance (WAA). Anyone wishing to learn more can contact COLA by clicking here, calling 800-981-9883, or by visiting https://education.cola.org/contact-us-page.
The federal agency shipped tests to five commercial clinical laboratory companies, augmenting efforts by public health labs
Medical laboratories in the US are ramping up their efforts to respond to an outbreak of monkeypox that has been spreading around the globe. Microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists will be interested to learn that this infectious agent—which is new to the US—may be establishing itself in the wild rodent population in this country. If proved to be true, it means Americans would be at risk of infection from contact with rodents as well as other people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on May 18 that it had identified the infection in a Massachusetts resident who had recently traveled to Canada. As of August 3, the federal agency was reporting 6,617 confirmed cases in the US.
“By dramatically expanding the number of testing locations throughout the country, we are making it possible for anyone who needs to be tested to do so,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in an HHS press release.
Labcorp was first out of the gate, announcing on July 6 that it was offering the CDC-developed test for its customers, as well as accepting overflow from public labs. “We will initially perform all monkeypox testing in our main North Carolina lab and have the capacity to expand to other locations nationwide should the need arise,” said Labcorp chief medical officer and president Brian Caveney, MD, in a press release.
Mayo Clinic Laboratories followed suit on July 11, announcing that the clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology would perform the testing at its main facility in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Patients can access testing through Mayo Clinic healthcare professionals and will soon be able to access testing through healthcare professionals who use Mayo Clinic Laboratories as their reference laboratory,” Mayo stated in a press release.
Then, Quest Diagnostics announced on July 13 that it was testing for the virus with an internally developed PCR test, with plans to offer the CDC test in the first half of August.
The lab-developed test “was validated under CLIA federal regulations and is now performed at the company’s advanced laboratory in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.,” Quest stated in a press release.
Public Health Emergency?
Meanwhile, the CDC announced on June 28 that it had established an Emergency Operations Center to respond to the outbreak. A few weeks later, on July 23, World Health Organization (WHO) Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, declared that the outbreak represented “a public health emergency of international concern.”
He noted that international health regulations required him to consider five elements to make such a declaration.
“WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region where we assess the risk as high,” he said in a WHO news release. “There is also a clear risk of further international spread, although the risk of interference with international traffic remains low for the moment. So, in short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little, and which meets the criteria in the International Health Regulations.”
Still, public health authorities have made it clear that this is not a repeat of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Monkeypox virus is a completely different virus than the viruses that cause COVID-19 or measles,” the CDC stated in a June 9 advisory. “It is not known to linger in the air and is not transmitted during short periods of shared airspace. Monkeypox spreads through direct contact with body fluids or sores on the body of someone who has monkeypox, or with direct contact with materials that have touched body fluids or sores, such as clothing or linens. It may also spread through respiratory secretions when people have close, face-to-face contact.”
The New York Times reported that some experts disagreed with the CDC’s assessment that the virus “is not known to linger in the air.” But Professor of Environmental Health Donald Milton, MD, DrPH, of the University of Maryland, told The Times it is still “not nearly as contagious as the coronavirus.”
The Massachusetts resident who tested positive in May was not the first known case of monkeypox in the US, however, previous cases involved travel from countries where the disease is more common. Two cases in 2021—one in Texas and one in Maryland—involved US residents who had recently returned from Nigeria, the CDC reported. And a 2003 outbreak in the Midwest was linked to rodents and other small mammals imported to Texas from Ghana in West Africa.
“Labcorp and Quest don’t dispute that in many cases, their phlebotomists are not taking blood from possible monkeypox patients,” according to CNN. “What remains unclear, after company statements and follow-ups from CNN, is whether the phlebotomists are refusing on their own to take blood or if it is the company policy that prevents them. The two testing giants say they’re reviewing their safety policies and procedures for their employees.”
One symptom of monkeypox, the CDC states, is a rash resembling pimples or blisters. Clinicians are advised that two swabs should be collected from each skin lesion, though “procedures and materials used for collecting specimens may vary depending on the phase of the rash.”
“Effective communication and precautionary measures between specimen collection teams and laboratory staff are essential to maximizing safety when manipulating specimens suspected to contain monkeypox virus,” the CDC notes. “This is especially relevant in hospital settings, where laboratories routinely process specimens from patients with a variety of infectious and/or noninfectious conditions.”
Perhaps the negative reaction to the CDC’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the US is driving the federal agency’s swift response to this new viral threat. Regardless, clinical laboratories and pathology groups will play a key role in the government’s plan to combat monkeypox in America.
During a conference call with investors about the company’s first-quarter results, Schwan said of the recently-launched COVID-19 antibody assays, “These tests are not worth anything, or have very little use,” according to reporting from Reuters and other publications. “Some of these companies, I tell you, this is ethically very questionable to get out with this stuff.”
In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Schwan said about antibody testing, “It is very important to pick the right test and then to validate those tests with enough patients.” He then returned to the issue of poor quality in some antibody tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, saying, “Unfortunately, there are a number of tests already out there in the market which are not reliable simply because they haven’t been tested sufficiently.”
A ‘Wild West’ of Unregulated Assays
Prior to issuing tougher rules for how a manufacturer can market a COVID-19 serological test, the FDA had listed about 200 serological tests designed to identify antibodies produced by the human immune system in response to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. This is the process of seroconversion, which is the development of detectable antibodies in a patient’s blood against a pathogen. Detection of IgG antibodies indicates exposure to SARS-CoV-2, according to ARUP Laboratories.
Public health experts have raised questions about the proliferation of such tests for the new coronavirus. Under the FDA’s previous March 16 rules—which were more relaxed than those FDA applied when granting EUAs—the agency was swamped with requests to review more than 200 COVID-19 antibody tests. The looser regulations resulted in nearly no oversight of those tests, reported the Associated Press (AP).
“In the meantime,” Blank added, “you’ve got a lot of companies marketing a lot of stuff and nobody has any idea of how good it is.” Blank confirmed to Dark Daily that he made these comments and stands by them.
Calls for Closer Scrutiny of Serological Antibody Tests
In response to the FDA’s March 16 rules for COVID-19 serology tests, APHL requested the federal agency to review its looser approach to reviewing these tests. The impact of the FDA’s much tougher COVID-19 serological testing rules released on May 4 was immediate.
In a press release issued on May 2, the FDA said, “to date, the FDA has authorized 105 tests under EUAs, which include 92 molecular tests, 12 antibody tests, and one antigen test.”
Clinical laboratories in the United States still face difficult challenges if they plan to launch their own COVID-19 serology testing programs. They must select one or more tests from among the antibody and antigen tests that have an FDA EUA. However, data for each of these tests is not as comprehensive as is the data for diagnostic test kits reviewed by the FDA and cleared for market under the pre-market approval process.
This webinar was conducted by James O. Westgard, PhD, and Sten Westgard of Westgard QC, Inc., and the full program is available for free download by clicking here, or by placing this URL in your web browser: https://www.darkdaily.com/webinar/quality-issues-your-clinical-laboratory-should-know-before-you-buy-or-select-covid-19-serology-tests/.
In the webinar recording, the Westgards provide a detailed overview of what elements are required for a clinical lab to have confidence that its COVID-19 serology testing program is producing accurate, reliable results. They explain that labs must understand the unique aspects of the populations they are testing in their communities. All of these factors can then be used by labs to evaluate the different COVID-19 serology tests available for them to purchase, and to select the test that best fits their lab’s capabilities and the characteristics of the patient population that will be tested.
Another important requirement for clinical laboratories to understand is the list of steps necessary to bring up a COVID-19 serological testing program. That starts with validating the test, then bringing it into daily production. As that happens, issues associated with quality control (QC), proficiency testing (PT), and regulatory compliance take center stage, so that the clinical lab has high confidence in the accuracy and reproducibility of the COVID-19 serology test results they are using in patient care or in support of employers who are screening employees for COVID-19.
To register for the June 11 webinar, click here, or place this URL in your web browser: https://www.darkdaily.com/webinar/achieving-high-confidence-levels-in-the-quality-and-accuracy-of-your-clinical-labs-chosen-covid-19-serology-tests/.
innovations that clinical labs are using to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This critical information includes effective ways labs can restore their cash flow to pre-pandemic levels and get test claims paid by government and private payers.
One popular feature is the COVID-19 Live! conference calls that happen every Tuesday and Thursday for 30 minutes at 1 PM, EDT. Visit the COVID-19 STAT Intelligence Briefings website and join us for the live calls.
Analysis of almost 3 million newborn blood samples found that tens of thousands of specimens were not screened promptly for rare but deadly disorders, leading to patient harm in some cases
State-mandated newborn testing has come under increased media scrutiny following the discovery that delays in reporting the clinical laboratory test results had resulted in harm to some children with genetic diseases. One source of problems is some hospitals fail to promptly submit specimens from babies to their state’s newborn testing laboratory.
In Wisconsin, pathologists and medical laboratory and laboratory managers probably know the story of Colton Hidde because of news stories about his case. When Karen and Mike Hidde brought their newborn baby Colton home from the hospital after his birth in October 2012, they had no idea that he would soon be close to death. He appeared to be a normal newborn. But he was not, and the Hiddes didn’t find out that he had a rare and life-threatening genetic defect until they rushed him back to the hospital less than 24 hours after bringing him home. (more…)