WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the fight against omicron, there’s no fighting the long lines at COVID testing sites. Behind all that testing, though, are labs under pressure to get results.
“We've got an extraordinary team, but we have an extraordinarily small team,” said Dr. Tim Southern is laboratory director for South Dakota’s Public Health Lab.
Early on, they realized COVID would require some changes.
“There's no way that this state public health laboratory would be able to sustain all the testing needed in the state of South Dakota,” Dr. Southern said.
So, they got to work. While doing public health surveillance -- keeping a bird’s eye view of what COVID was doing in the state -- they also supported COVID testing done at clinical labs, like those at hospitals and clinics. Still, for lab technicians everywhere, the pandemic’s demands have been enormous, including at taxpayer-funded public health labs.
According to the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the number of weekly tests conducted at public health labs around the country sat at around 124,000 on Nov. 22, the Monday prior to Thanksgiving.
Compare that to Jan. 3, the Monday after the New Year, when omicron caused that number to skyrocket to 293,000 tests.
“As far as testing is concerned, the public health laboratories have been in surge mode,” said Dr. Christine Bean, chief learning officer for the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
She said the need to train more lab technicians is real.
“I believe the pandemic has really shown where some of the weaknesses are because public health funding had been cut in budget cuts previously,” she said.
Dr. Bean added that the American Rescue Plan allotted $282 million to help boost the workforce of public health labs.
“We're using that funding to really grow the number of fellowships that we're able to host and also develop internship programs for students to enter public health laboratories, to get people to come into the profession is the goal,” Dr. Bean said.
Back in South Dakota, Dr. Southern said recruiting the next generation of lab technicians is key.
“At the heart of all the science we do are the amazing people that power that science,” he said. “You can have all the best facilities, you can have all the best instrumentation, but if you don't have the workforce, you don't have a program.”