‘We are overlooked and essential.’ Inside U-M’s COVID testing lab

The microbiology department at Michigan Medicine's lab on North Campus. (Cheryl Kubisiak)

ANN ARBOR – Each year, the US marks Medical Laboratory Professionals Week during the last week of April to recognize the critical role lab workers play in keeping health care systems running.

Now more than ever, lab technologists around the country -- and world -- are working tirelessly to deliver results for constant COVID testing.

Medical technologist in Michigan Medicine’s microbiology department, Cheryl Kubisiak, said that COVID completely transformed their day-to-day routine.

Prior to the pandemic, she and her colleagues were conducting viral and bacterial tests for the hospital. Already no small feat, she said that nothing could have prepared them for the sudden spike in demand for COVID testing.

“We went up about 70% in our testing volume,” said Kubisiak, whose lab shifted to a 24-hour schedule to accommodate the time sensitive tests. “It’s just demanding. You just go from morning until night and then you’re just dead when you leave.”

She said many people in her department have begun physical therapy at U-M because processing tests requires fine, repetitive movements for hours at a time.

A lab technologist processes tests at Michigan Medicine's Microbiology Lab. (Camren Clouthier | Michigan Photography)

“Much of what we receive requires manipulation of some kind before it is tested,” said Kubisiak, who has had carpal tunnel syndrome for years. “There were times when there’d be 1,000 little test tubes that you could unscrew and screw back on every day. It’s quite a process.

“Even the younger people, their hands are numb. As much pipetting that we do, several people are complaining of the same issues in their neck and shoulder.”

Read: Michigan Medicine opens COVID ‘long haul’ clinic for adults, children

She estimates that her lab processes 600 to 1,000 COVID tests a day, and that three technologists typically cover one shift.

In a testing lab, timing is everything. Whether it be timing motions with your partner to improve work flow, growing bacteria or answering questions from physicians and nurses, she said that technologists are in a constant race against time.

A lab technologist processes tests at Michigan Medicine's Microbiology Lab. (Camren Clouthier | Michigan Photography)

“Tissues need to be ground and plated on media, all liquid and especially COVID nasal swabs need a significant amount of vortexing to release cells and DNA into the media,” she explained. “Lab techs and med techs alike constantly answer questions from physicians and nurses regarding sample type, amount, how to collect, how to transport, proper collection devices, etc. Rarely does a physician (perform) a procedure without some type of lab involvement.”

Kubisiak said she and her colleagues wish they had the luxury of visiting Michigan Medicine’s new “recharge rooms” aimed at preventing burnout among medical workers.

Running nonstop tests for one of the state’s largest health systems sometimes requires technologists to work into the next shift, she said.

“Many of our tasks cannot be left for tomorrow,” she said. “We don’t leave until they are finished.”

While they know their work is essential to patient care, Kubisiak said lab workers often feel unseen.

“Nobody ever sees us,” she said. “We’re not the people that draw your blood. Everybody knows who your nurse is, or who the doctor is, but very few people know the group of people in between that provide really valuable information.”

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