Laboratory techs in Williston are helping to play a unique role in the coronavirus pandemic, among them Medscan in Williston.

While the lab is not doing COVID-19 testing directly, they are over taking samples from sister lab Altru in Houston, so that lab can focus all its resources on processing coronavirus tests.

“They knew they’d be swamped with those specimens,” explains Kelsey Lowe, a laboratory tech in Williston. “We have a large toxicology department here at this lab in Williston. So we do our own testing that we have normally, and we took on theirs too.”

Medscan in Williston has seven medical laboratory scientists or med lab techs that perform testing, Lowe said, as well as quite a few laboratory assistants who help process samples, which come through the mail.

‘We, as the tech, make sure everything is the correct specimen type, and that it has been drawn properly,” Lowe explained. “Then we can actually perform the testing on those specimens.”

Laboratory techs have been in the spotlight as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, but this week, as it happens, is also their week. It is Medical Laboratory Professionals Week.

“It’s not normally something you think about as a patient, but you are not just a patient to a doctor,” Lowe said. “You’re a patient to a whole team of people, a lot of whom you don’t see.”

With labs across the country in the spotlight right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lowe is hoping it helps highlight a potential career for young people. Laboratory techs were in short supply even before the pandemic occurred.

She feels it has been a great career, one with lots of opportunities, including travel. In fact, travel is how Lowe came to be in Williston.

She started out working for a large lab outside of Detroit, before signing up as a travel tech. That brought her to Williston, where she has been for three years now.

“I like North Dakota,” she said. “I like where I work, I like my job.”

It’s been encouraging to her to see lab techs getting some attention during the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s usually not considered interesting,” she said. “I would never have expected that to be an article on CNN or any sort of news at all. So it’s really nice to hear that people are taking an interest in testing, and maybe who does the testing and who is behind the scenes.”

Regular testing has dropped quite a bit in the Williston area, Lowe said, as many doctors are not performing any elective procedures right now.

“We were regularly running between 170 to 230 patients a day,” Lowe said. “But once this started, with a lot of the lockdowns, it’s dropped quite a bit. Yesterday we had maybe 100 different patients.”

Lowe, like many Americans, is awaiting the development of precise, accurate, and affordable test kits. But the work will just be beginning once that happens, she adds.

“We will have to validate the test,” Lowe explained. “Even though the manufacturer says it will test for COVID-19 and be precise and accurate, we will have to prove that in-house before we can start running patient samples. There is a lot to it. We have to prove that positives are positives and negatives are negatives, but we cannot use a patient to do it.”

That part of the process, proving that the test works, involves making quality control materials that will be used to show the test is accurate.

“It is a process,” Lowe said. “All labs want this testing, of course. They want to be able to perform it. It’s just how fast can they get it out.”

This week, Lowe hopes lab techs will get a little more attention above and beyond the coronavirus outbreak.

“It is an important week for people to realize the health care team is a team, and includes a lot of people who you don’t see, but they still care about you,” she said. “A tube of blood is not a tube of blood to us. it is a patient. A lot of people don’t understand what happens to their blood after it goes to the lab. It is important for us to get that out there.”

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