When COVID-19 Meets Flu Season: How One Clinical Laboratory is Preparing

A typical flu season presents significant challenges for medical laboratories with increased demand and pressure for providing quick and accurate diagnostic testing. But what happens when you combine this already demanding time with the global COVID-19 pandemic? No one can say for sure, but our team recently had the pleasure of catching up with Melissa Gilmore, Laboratory Director for Baptist Memorial Hospital Golden Triangle in Columbus, Mississippi, to learn more about how she and her team are preparing for an upcoming flu season unlike any other.

How has COVID-19 impacted your lab’s daily work environment?

The biggest impact our lab has experienced in the wake of COVID-19 is the struggle with supply shortages. Not only PPE supplies, but every item that has to do with COVID testing has been, and continues to be, an issue for us to maintain adequate stock for our laboratory’s usage. This includes reagents, nasopharyngeal swabs, transport tubes, etc.

We’ve also ran into challenges with test/assay allocation. Our lab started with using one assay for COVID testing, but after the assay manufacturer had to start allocating their reagents, we had to bring in another instrument and new assays in order to keep up with the demand. And even after bringing in more instruments, we continue to have a hard time keeping reagents in stock. In the beginning of the pandemic, we intended to bring most of our testing in house, but quickly realized that we needed to utilize our reference labs to augment our own capacity as well.

Of course, we’ve also had phenomenal challenges with keeping our staff well and healthy, particularly early in the game.

How is your lab’s preparation for this year’s flu season different from previous years?

We know the reagent shortage may be a problem as many assay manufacturers are focusing their resources on COVID and COVID combo testing rather than the routine respiratory tests (Flu, RSV, Strep). This results in us having to search in all different directions to source different reagents and controls we need for the typical respiratory testing in addition to the COVID testing. COVID combo testing is expensive, on top of the challenges with their allocation. If we put all our resources into the combo tests and suddenly they cut production capacity, we are stuck. We cannot go without the Flu, Strep, and RSV tests. We have steady testing demands here. Providers are now ordering Strep, Flu and COVID for ER patients and that is our routine panel now. Keeping each of those reagents on-hand will be a huge challenge once flu really starts cranking up.

How do you get the laboratory staff prepared for Flu season? For example, are there any trainings they are required to attend?

We don’t have an specific trainings required for flu season, but we have found with COVID the challenge is training them to wear the proper PPE and use all the important precautions that have been set forth by the CDC guidelines.  And as those are constantly changing, you have to be very aware of the changes and retraining the lab on the proper guidelines.

What lessons have you learned that you would like share with other laboratories?

Collaboration has been the biggest thing. We’ve collaborated with other labs and hospitals and it’s been invaluable. It’s so helpful to hear what others are doing, sharing procedures, sharing thoughts and ideas, and learning about different ways we can do things. You can’t operate in a silo, especially during a pandemic.

 

Biography:

Melissa Gilmore oversees a full-service medical diagnostics laboratory and a staff of more 47 employees as the Laboratory Director at Baptist Memorial Hospital Golden Triangle in Columbus, Mississippi. Melissa earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology from the Mississippi University for Women, as well as a Medical Technology degree from Baptist Memorial Hospital School of Medical Technology. Most recently, Melissa has served as clinical work group Chairperson for a collaborative microbiology project involving 13 hospitals within her healthcare system.

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