Stepping up: Managing and transporting COVID-19 swabs keeps lab scientist on her toes

Lisa Horning, an American Society of Clinical Pathology-certified medical laboratory scientist, has worked for the University of Iowa for more than 30 years.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa Horning’s job didn’t really require good walking shoes.

The Immunopathology supervisor works in a lab on the fifth floor of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics’ Roy Carver Pavilion, where she and many of her colleagues spend the majority of their time. But in recent weeks, Horning has covered so much ground visiting different departments that the step count on her watch totaled 10 miles on a recent day.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the different areas of the hospital,” says Horning, an American Society of Clinical Pathology-certified medical laboratory scientist who has worked for the University of Iowa for more than 30 years. “And, of course, knowing I’m doing something helpful during this time.”

In her lab in Anatomic Pathology, Horning and her staff screen patients’ blood samples to test for autoimmune diseases. They also test patients’ tissues in diagnosing cancers and prepare materials for pathologists that allow them to render a diagnosis and treatment.

But when the impact of COVID-19 led to postponement of elective surgeries—and patients not coming into the clinic for routine pre-surgery testing—Horning’s workload decreased dramatically. So, when in-house testing for the COVID-19 virus became available in late March, an opportunity arose to assist the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, which is testing for the virus.

“I wanted to make myself useful,” she says. “I knew they needed help, so I said I’ll help in any way.”

Not your household cotton swab

Horning is involved in an important aspect of COVID-19 testing: managing the supply and distribution of oral and nasal pharyngeal swabs, a specific type that is necessary for the extensive validation to make sure the test is producing accurate results.

While it might seem like household cotton swabs could be used, the necessary swabs—many of which are made in Italy and have been in short supply—have to be very specific.

“The test can only be performed on these types of swabs,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “I know a lot more about swabs than I did several weeks ago.”

The swabs, which may also be used for throat swabs or flu tests, were located in various clinics or storage areas. So, Department of Pathology staff worked to collect and store all of them in a one central location. In addition to creating an organized inventory source, Horning and colleagues have also been serving as “runners” who ensure the test samples are transported promptly and properly.

“When an area needs to do a COVID-19 test on a patient, they call us. We bring it to that area, and then we take the specimen to the Clinical Microbiology Lab,” she says.

After a specimen is taken, Horning and staff make sure that it is double-bagged, then placed into a portable cooler—not because it needs to be kept cold, but just so it’s untouched and contained in a safe place.

“It’s about making sure the specimens are getting [to the Clinical Microbiology Lab] safely and in a timely manner, and also maintaining the supply so they have the materials they need to do the testing,” she says.

One step at a time

As they transport the swabs, Horning and her two runners find themselves covering a great deal of ground as they move between departments.

“We’re glad to get out and see the other areas, get some steps in, and help the patients, too,” she says. “Through this, I’m learning resilience. It has made me realize how adaptable I can be. I think a lot of us are feeling that way.” Horning says that she feels a sense of fulfillment from playing this new role in the hospital’s overall COVID-19 response.

“I enjoy knowing that I was able to help out in a productive way during this time, in any way that I could.”

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