NEW YORK – On Quest Diagnostics’ latest Q2 earnings name, firm Chairman, President, and CEO Steve Rusckowski noticed that for the reason that SARS-CoV-2 pandemic arrived within the U.S. this winter, microbiology has gone from one thing of a “backwater” inside the laboratory “to entrance and heart.”
This has occasioned some rising pains, not least of throughout staffing, Rusckowski stated, noting that with regard to SARS-CoV-2 testing, the corporate has run into “capability limits across the folks and people which can be skilled adequately to ship on this.”
In actual fact, the COVID-19 disaster has ramped up demand in two areas — microbiology and molecular testing — the place skilled personnel have been already in brief provide. Talking in February shortly earlier than the primary wave of the pandemic hit the U.S., Austin Dickson, enterprise growth supervisor at Raleigh, North Carolina-based Lighthouse Lab Providers, highlighted microbiology and molecular as among the many hardest areas to employees.
The pandemic has solely exacerbated that difficulty, Dickson stated lately, as molecular assays have dominated SARS-CoV-2 testing up to now, and laboratories across the nation have been quickly ramping up their capabilities on this space.
“There was already a [staffing] scarcity as a result of molecular wasn’t one thing that was prevalent in day-to-day lab testing, and [molecular testing] has elevated, however the employees hasn’t actually caught up,” he stated. “Each lab is including in PCR know-how, so the demand is simply at an all-time excessive, I’d say.”
Dickson stated he was in some instances seeing lab techs skilled in molecular make 10 % or extra over what they might have acquired pre-COVID-19.
“A $60,000 technologist is well $65,000 or $70,000 at this level,” he stated, including that relocation advantages have gotten extra frequent, as effectively.
“You are going to need to compete [for trained personnel], however it’s on the market in case your pay could be very robust,” he stated.
Sonny Naqvi, CEO of St. Louis, Missouri-based AIM Laboratories, stated that his agency has been operating adverts searching for techs with molecular expertise for the final three to 4 months. When the pandemic began, AIM had the capability to run about 100 to 200 molecular exams per day. It has since ramped that as much as round 2,000, and will probably be at round four,000 to five,000 within the subsequent few weeks, Naqvi stated.
“Discovering the best folks within the space of molecular science has been robust,” he stated. “We have employed about six or seven folks for our molecular lab since this began again in February or March and we proceed to search for two or three extra. Skilled individuals are very, very tough to seek out.”
Patricia Tanabe, govt director of the American Society for Scientific Pathology board of certification, stated that within the absence of sufficient skilled personnel, many labs have both redeployed folks from different components of the laboratory or used much less skilled employees who nonetheless require a point of coaching.
She famous that a colleague of hers has addressed her molecular staffing downside by utilizing trainees with a science bachelor’s levels however with out extra medical laboratory science schooling. These trainees can work for as much as two years earlier than they need to take the microbiology examination, following which they may obtain a promotion to a tech place, Tanabe stated.
Naqvi stated his lab has taken an identical strategy, bringing in various grasp’s- and bachelor’s-degreed personnel and coaching them.
Getting trainees with out prior microbiology and molecular expertise up to the mark is “robust,” although, Naqvi stated, noting that the pattern prep course of was probably the most difficult half.
“After you have prepped the pattern it’s simple, however the time it takes to prep the pattern could be very lengthy, and the method isn’t solely laborious, however you must be very meticulous,” he stated. “One mistake can result in you having to repeat the entire plate, which is able to value a big sum of money and create a big period of time delays.”
Tanabe stated that the big variety of totally different instrument platforms presently getting used for SARS-CoV-2 testing additionally presents a problem, significantly for coaching staff with out earlier expertise.
“It is not exceptional for a facility to have six totally different platforms, so not solely do you must practice them, you must practice them to work on six totally different platforms,” she stated.
Dickson stated he’s additionally seeing many labs redeploy employees from different departments to microbiology and molecular testing. Usually, he stated, it will take a number of months for a tech skilled in one other space to turn into absolutely proficient in molecular, however, he famous, “it is trial by hearth at this level, as a result of they’re actually getting thrown in. When you will have samples there, you must course of them.”
Tanabe famous that whilst labs struggled to fill molecular and microbiology positions, many have furloughed employees in different components of the laboratory on account of a decline in routine take a look at volumes. In lots of instances, she stated, these furloughed staff have been at amenities that weren’t doing SARS-CoV-2 testing and could not simply shift to ease the demand for molecular employees.
“There’s this actual range the place there are giant establishments which can be simply inundated with COVID testing and might’t sustain, after which smaller locations that are not doing COVID testing and are not doing the rest [due to the drop in routine testing],” she stated. “So, they do not have the necessity inside that facility.”
Dickson famous that some labs have been shifting to extra automated workflows to assist handle the staffing crunch. Specifically, the transfer from handbook to automated RNA extraction can present financial savings when it comes to the personnel wanted to run SARS-CoV-2 exams, he stated.
Many laboratories are presently deciding whether or not including employees or automated instrumentation will do extra to assist them construct capability, he stated. “Which a part of the funnel do we have to broaden to extend throughput? Quite a lot of instances employees is the very first thing they appear to after which they understand that switching over to automated extraction will be capable of improve throughput with out hiring extra techs.”
This comes with challenges of its personal, although, he famous. For example, some extraction platforms won’t have Emergency Use Authorization to be used with the take a look at kits and platforms a lab is operating. There’s additionally robust demand for the technicians and repair engineers wanted to arrange and keep a few of these automated platforms.
“Throughout the previous few weeks, I’ve had a number of calls the place individuals are asking about these liquid dealing with units and whether or not there are service engineers or individuals who can arrange the scripts and algorithms for a way they’re pipetting,” Dickson stated. “Demand is form of outpacing what existed earlier than within the business. [Automation firms] have restricted engineers which can be on the market.”
He stated that one other space the place he has seen an uptick in demand is for lab administrators. This, Dickson stated, has been pushed by analysis labs with PCR experience turning into CLIA amenities to allow them to carry out SARS-CoV-2 testing.
In lots of instances, the heads of those labs do not have the certifications required to function director of a CLIA lab, he stated. “They might have a PhD in molecular biology, however they may nonetheless not qualify primarily based on the personnel necessities set by CLIA, so they should discover somebody who has labored within the CLIA setting.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, 360Dx, which gives in-depth protection of in vitro diagnostics and the medical lab market.