BioReference Laboratories’ Unique Journey during the COVID-19 Pandemic Described in ‘Swab,’ a New Book by former BRLI CEO Jon Cohen, MD
Certainly every clinical laboratory in the United States has a unique story about dealing with the challenges of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, but only BioReference did testing for multiple professional sports leagues and the cruise ship industry
Few would challenge the assertion that the nation’s clinical laboratories (along with public health officials) were caught flat-footed when the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus reached the United States in the winter of 2021. Even as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and some labs rushed to develop reliable medical laboratory tests for COVID-19 in the early weeks of the outbreak, the demand for tests far outstripped supply in this country for many months.
This was the moment when the pandemic’s need meant lab testing opportunity for medical laboratories across the nation. This was particularly true for Elmwood Park, New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories, Inc. (BRLI), a division of OPKO, Inc. BioReference found itself in the nation’s first pandemic hot zone—New York City and surrounding counties.
Not only was this lab company geographically in the center of the first overwhelming surge of COVID-19 cases, but its management team had important relationships across government and business. For that reason, its management team was pulled into the earliest planning sessions by government officials at the city, state, and federal level.
Consequently, in the earliest days of the outbreak, BioReference was one of the nation’s first labs to help organize and support drive-through COVID-19 specimen collection centers. Its management team went on to accomplish many notable firsts in the lab’s response to the pandemic. All of this is described in the recently-published book “Swab–Leadership in the Race to Provide COVID Testing to America.”
As CEO of BioReference Laboratories during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, physician Jon R. Cohen, MD (above), energized his clinical lab’s management team and staff to rise to a series of unique challenges, ranging from helping set up the nation’s first drive-through COVID-19 sampling sites in New York City to performing testing for professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL. (Photo copyright: New York Foundling, Inc.)
Harnessing the Creativity and Energy of a Clinical Lab Staff
“Swab” documents BioReference lab’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and tells the tale of how the lab company harnessed the creativity of its managers and lab scientists to speedily build up daily test volumes at a time when automation, analyzers, test kits, collection supplies, and reagents were in short supply.
Clinical laboratory professionals interested in lab management will gain valuable insights from Cohen’s approach to writing “Swab.”
While describing BioReference lab’s many innovative COVID-19 testing services, Cohen also provides readers with the management lessons and insights he used to impart needed skills to the company managers, while also inspiring BioReference Lab’s staff to devote the extra effort necessary to deliver COVID-19 testing in novel ways and in unusual settings.
When New York City hospitals were overwhelmed by cases in the earliest days of the pandemic, Cohen’s personal contacts with political leaders came into play. Just a few years earlier, Cohen had run for statewide office as a Democrat. He had friendships with the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, with the New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, and with Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Cohen’s Lab Had a Seat at Government Planning Tables
As these government officials convened various task forces to address the pandemic, Cohen describes how BioReference had a seat at the table and a voice in viable ways to organize specimen collection and COVID-19 testing literally overnight and on an unprecedented scale.
The pandemic’s early days in late February, March, and April of 2020 were only the first challenges to be overcome by the management at BioReference. “Swab” describes a remarkable progression of innovative SARS-CoV-2 testing programs initiated by Cohen and his team. Each of these testing programs was tailored to the specific needs of different industries. No other clinical laboratory organization in the United States was as successful at serving this range of clients. For example:
- For the last eight games of the National Basketball Association’s 2020 season and playoffs, BioReference created and managed the NBA’s “biosecure bubble” program at Disney World in Orlando. Over the course of 172 games, 150,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests were performed with zero-positivity.
- The National Football League watched the NBA play in its bubble that summer. BioReference got the call and worked with NFL management to provide COVID-19 tests. For the 2020 season, in support of 268 games played across the United States, BioReference performed 1.23 million tests for 5,000 players, coaches, and staff, with an infection rate of less than 1%.
- Along with the NBA and NFL, BioReference provided SARS-CoV-2 testing for professional soccer and hockey, the Winter X Games, and the US men’s and women’s Olympic soccer teams.
- One of the lab company’s more complex SARS-CoV-2 testing programs involved the cruise ship industry. In 2021, BioReference established sites in 13 ports around the US and the Caribbean. The lab placed staff on as many as 24 cruise ships at one time.
- Of course, testing for schools, colleges, universities, and employers was part of BRLI’s testing services over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as well.
Creativity of Clinical Lab Managers and Staff
As the examples above illustrate, “Swab” will give readers a ringside seat in how BioReference Laboratories harnessed the creativity and skills of its management team and staff to address the unprecedented demands for timely, accurate COVID-19 testing from the very beginning of the pandemic through its waning months.
Cohen writes with an accessible style and provides readers with an easy-to-read narrative of his lab company’s journey through the pandemic. Each of the book’s 10 chapters ends with a “Leadership Reflection” that Cohen uses to describe the management methods he utilized to keep BRLI’s thousands of employees on task and on time, so that the end result month after month was “mission accomplished.”
In today’s digital age, the statement “this book is available at a bookstore near you” may not be applicable. What is true is that author Jon R. Cohen’s “Swab–Leadership in the Race to Provide COVID Testing to America” can be ordered at Amazon.com, Alibris.com, and other web-based booksellers.
—Robert L. Michel