In demand and loving it

Lisa Blake finds inspiration in her work testing for the COVID-19 virus

Like most people, Lisa Blake enjoys a couple of days off from her job every week. But since early March, she measures her time off in hours, not days.

Blake is a medical laboratory scientist in University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics’ Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, and she’s one of eight staff professionals responsible for testing nasal swab and oral swab specimens for the COVID-19 virus. Until March, her job was to test specimens that came to the lab from patients and staff, looking for viruses like hepatitis, influenza, and HIV.

But when the COVID-19 virus began to spread worldwide in February, her lab saw what was to come and changed its focus. They brought in new equipment, started validation tests, and trained for the coronavirus.

On March 22, they tested their first specimens. Within hours, they had their first positive.

“I thought, ‘Crap,’” Blake says. “That made it real. Before then, the virus was always somewhere else. But now, it was here. I thought, ‘Here we go.’”

Since then, it’s been virtually nonstop coronavirus testing—over 300 a day, each test taking four hours minimum to complete. Blake says those numbers will likely pick up soon, as increased testing, elective surgeries, and the effort to open the economy may double or even triple the number of tests they perform in a day. Fortunately, she says a new methodology they’re learning will allow them to test twice as many samples as they’re doing now.

They’re also training two new scientists to bring their total up to 10 and allow them to work 24/7.

She says most of the tests come from hospital staff, health care workers, and patients—pre-surgical patients, in particular. While most come from the hospital or its satellite clinics, about 10% of their work is sent from outside agencies and organizations with which the university has testing contracts.

Blake is proud to say that she’s not planning to take off an entire day anytime soon. Even on days when she’s not scheduled for work, she voluntarily comes in to train or train others, calibrate equipment, or do any number of tasks the team can’t get around to on other days.

Blake does see bright sides in her current work schedule and the high demand for her lab’s testing capabilities. Greater recognition for her profession, for one.

“I hope the public has more appreciation for what we do after this,” she says. “If it weren’t for medical laboratory science, doctors wouldn’t be able to treat patients.”

Most important to Blake, she says the work has never been so satisfying, knowing that she’s playing a key role in a virus-fighting process that will save lives.

“I want to be there and make sure things are done right,” she said from her home recently, indulging in a few hours of leisure with her pets. “I can’t wait to get back.”

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