MLS Students Fill in the Staffing Gaps for COVID-19 Testing Program

Volume 35 Number 2 | April 2021

Jessica Bankey, MPH, MLS(ASCP)CM

“An AMAZING opportunity!!!” That was initially how I proposed the idea to the MLS senior class. What started as a simple request through email, a COVID-19 testing program began to take shape on the Bowling Green State University (BGSU) campus. Little did we know at the time, our medical laboratory science program would be thrust into the frontlines of COVID-19 testing. Thus, giving students a genuine experience in laboratory testing and help meet the testing needs of our community by expanding the local pandemic response.

Academia and COVID-19 Response

In late October, the Ohio state government encouraged institutions of higher learning to develop screening testing programs, with a focus on testing asymptomatic individuals. They deployed a shipment of the new Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests to assist in compliance with this new mandate. Working with the BGSU administration, the medical laboratory science program was tapped to help develop a plan to help assist in an on-campus testing site.

Our university was able to partner with the local hospital clinical laboratory. Through collaboration, policies and procedures were developed to ensure that all off-site testing would follow the standards and regulations the hospital lab had in place through its accreditation. Creating a testing plan and working with clinical managers to create a plan of action was the easy part. Locating enough staff that also had the proper qualifications proved to be the biggest complication.

In the laboratory community, we are all painfully aware of the staffing crisis that the clinical laboratory is facing across the nation. The ongoing pandemic has only exacerbated staffing issues related to the ever-increasing workload caused by COVID-19 testing and pressure to increase capacity to meet demand. Here in northwest Ohio, our local healthcare system was stretched thin as it attempted to staff its community COVID-19 testing center and urgent care facility. After being off of the bench and in the world of academia for the past six years, I was nudged back into the laboratory to help staff the newly implemented RT-PCR molecular department. With rampant shortages, we had to find a solution to our local shortage of professionals. Thinking “outside the box,” we came up with a solution: BGSU students!

“The experience gave this group of students the satisfaction to be able to say that they provided a critical service to the community during a pivotal time in history.”

MLS students were initially asked to help out by volunteering a small amount of time as a form of service to the community. We stressed that it was not a mandatory requirement for program completion. After successful training and competency assessment on the rapid antigen test, under the supervision of a certified MLS, the students were ready to aid the university in providing testing. Initial focus of testing was for students and staff before they returned home for the holidays. What was initially described as “an amazing opportunity,” turned out to be so much more than we had anticipated.

Through funding, the university was able to offer paid positions to our students, and before we knew it their volunteerism turned into a part-time position. As supervisor and liaison between the laboratory and university, I was required to verify all results and sign off on all testing performed by the students. After three weeks, eight different days with appointments scheduled, 32 tests run per hour, our MLS students had performed over 1,700 tests before the Thanksgiving holiday. The experience gave this group of students the satisfaction to be able to say that they provided a critical service to the community during a pivotal time in history.

Program and Profession Visibility

Throughout the pandemic, I was honored to be a part of early university discussions regarding the important role that the clinical laboratory shares in fighting the ongoing pandemic. Keeping students and faculty safe on campus is of the utmost importance with proper testing being a key to stopping any localized outbreak within the community. Having “a seat at the table” in the planning process, there is nothing I can say that came easy.

Through the use of academic advisors, social media accounts, and on-campus events, we have sought to become “less hidden” and more visible to those interested in healthcare professions. Moving towards advancing our program and profession requires active involvement in outreach and education. Summer camps, high school groups, and open house events had previously proved to be the most beneficial methods to open students’ eyes to a healthcare field that they previously knew nothing about. On a university level, visibility was achieved through opening up lines of communication and forming relationships with others in the department and college. These partnerships proved to be invaluable when promoting our program on an academic level, especially in the time of COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit, BGSU graduates working the frontlines became popular feature stories. The frontline doesn’t just include members working as physicians and nurses; the lab plays a critical role in patient care and aids in the diagnosis of COVID-19. The medical laboratory science program seized the opportunity to ensure that our profession was included as a part of the conversation, came out of the darkness, and was no longer a hidden profession. Increasing the visibility of the profession at an academic level helped to pave the path for inclusion when discussing the future strategies enacted to keep community cases to a minimum.

Looking Toward a “COVID-19-Free” Future

I say this with the greatest amount of hope: COVID-19 will not be around forever. As the pandemic dissipates, so will our visibility. The lab will once again be hidden behind the thick walls that we find ourselves confined to in the hospital basement. How can we stay in the spotlight and have a “seat at the table”?

Advocacy and visibility cannot be forgotten once life returns to normal. Laboratory voices must remain in the conversation when it comes to patient care and the overall healthcare system. Introducing students to current legislative issues that involve laboratory medicine is key to keeping them engaged as working professionals. Social media is a great place to begin. Legislative symposiums and organizational activity are necessary to form the future of our profession and how we move forward in a COVID-19-free world.

COVID-19 got the ball rolling. What can you do to make sure that momentum keeps it moving in the right direction?

Jessica Bankey is MLS Program Director/Assistant Clinical Professor at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.