When the pandemic hit North Dakota in mid-March, the state’s public health lab multiplied it’s testing capacity, seemingly overnight.
Pre-March, the Department of Health had only 19 lab employees. Now, there are over 140.
But even with more than seven times the normal workforce, those processing our COVID-19 tests say it’s overwhelming.
KX News has taken a few phone calls recently with state lab workers. They want to remain anonymous because they’re still employed at the public health lab, but one tells us they are overworked and getting burnt out.
And, as the number of active cases keeps rising, it’s not making anyone’s job any easier.
“We went from operating Monday through Friday 8-5, and we’re now operating 24/7,” shared Dr. Christie Massen the N.D. Dept. of Health’s Chief Laboratory Officer.
“But this group has worked incredibly hard, and that’s why we’re constantly working to hire staff. There’s always room for improvement but we’re always keeping an eye on staff burnout because we don’t need to lose people.”
The anonymous workers also brought up concerns about technology choices in the lab, particularly the Abbott m2000 machines, which lab employees claim break down often.
This is a concern KX News brought to Governor Doug Burgum in May, because the Executive Chairman of Abbott Labs Miles White was the fifth-largest donor to the Governor’s initial election campaign in 2016, donating also this year.
“I heard somebody say ‘He must want something,'” the Governor said at his May 15th press conference.
“That’s as close to ridiculous as you can get because Abbott machinery is wanted by every state and every government and every business in the whole world.”
Dr. Massen says the Public Health lab had an m2000 machine pre-pandemic, so it was the obvious choice to use an existing machine. She says the Abbott m2000 is also used by other private labs in North Dakota.
As for the break downs, Dr. Massen confirmed, “Yes, we have seen Abbott instruments fail and that does cause problems for us. And so not all of our failures, though just to be clear, are with the instrument itself.”
She says it could be a technician error, or something else. And, unlike other machines that are handled manually by a lab tech, the m2000 is robotic.
“Those have a tendency to break down,” the Chief Laboratory Officer added.
The state is using a host of other machinery from various manufacturers, some new, some old.
KX News reached out to several state labs across the U.S. Minnesota and Virginia responded, saying they do not use Abbott technology. But, there is only one machine that all three states use. That’s the ABI 7500 Fast DX real-time PCR system.
“As we really struggled to get reagents from one platform, we had another that was able to step in and meet that demand,” Dr. Massen explained.
She says the lab still struggles to keep enough non-reusable supplies, particularly reagents, a substance that is essential to testing.”
I feel like it’s like playing Whac-a-mole,” Dr. Massen said.
“I feel like we solve one problem and another pops up.”
To compensate, the Dept. of Health has been sending about 30 to 40% of tests to Mako Medical Laboratories in North Carolina.
But, at the end of a long day for all at the lab, Dr. Massen says her biggest concern is the staff and making sure they have enough hands on deck to keep that workload down and burn out from happening.
Dr. Massen says the turn around time for a test from the doctor’s office to getting your result is about three to four days right now, give or take.
The first test in, is the first out. They’re processed chronologically. But, there is a team within the N.D. D.O.D. that actually puts together that test schedule, and prioritizes longterm care facilities and other vulnerable populations as needed.