UAB Medicine Laboratories Played Vital Role in COVID Response

Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, which is April 18-24 this year, is an annual celebration of the medical laboratory professionals who play a vital role in health care. UAB Medicine takes great pride in the highly skilled medical technologists who work in these labs.

There are 35 labs under UAB Medicine’s Hospital Laboratories umbrella, and some serve areas beyond Jefferson County. These labs employ roughly 500 staff members who are responsible for analyzing blood, urine, bodily fluids, and tissue used in the diagnosis and management of disease. The staff annually conduct over nine million tests for UAB Medicine, and the labs are highly regulated by internal and external federal and peer-related accredited quality programs.

These labs played a crucial role in combatting COVID-19. Lab staff facilitated testing and assisted clinicians with interpretations for patient diagnoses and prognoses regarding specific care. The labs work closely with the UAB Department of Pathology, and the pathologists serve as the medical directors of these various labs. Sherry Polhill, MT, ASCP, MBA, Associate Vice President of Hospital Laboratories, Respiratory Care, and Pulmonary Function Services, notes the importance of the labs throughout the pandemic.

“UAB Medicine was able to offer COVID testing for patient placement, surgeries performed, outpatient procedures, emergency rooms, and employees rapidly throughout the pandemic; in addition to managing blood transfusions and autopsies needed on COVID patients,” Polhill says. “We have 40 incredible management leaders in addition to the 500 phenomenal staff who enable incredible workforce teams. We made it through the pandemic thanks to the leadership and work ethic of the pathologists, hospital lab management, and personnel laboring together for the institution.”

Pathology and Hospital Labs Shine During the Pandemic

Recognition of laboratory professionals is especially pertinent this year, considering the vital role the UAB Department of Pathology and Hospital Labs played in fighting COVID-19. The department’s labs began testing for COVID-19 in early March 2020, conducting limited tests for inpatients, employees, and Emergency Department patients.

From that point forward, researchers expanded efforts to increase the testing capability at hospitals and health care facilities across Alabama. The department’s efforts throughout the pandemic demonstrated tremendous energy, dedication, and innovation. A few of the pathology labs’ many accomplishments over the last year are summarized below:

  • Created a laboratory-developed test (LDT) to overcome a shortage of specific testing supplies and make tests significantly less expensive; obtained Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA for the test
  • Adjusted schedules and staffing to work around the clock, completing 1,000 tests per day by August 2020 at two- and four-year colleges across the state
  • Implemented innovations in testing methods and sampling to streamline the process
  • Partnered with diagnostic test companies on multiple platforms and systems to increase testing capacity
  • Recruited molecularly trained scientists (advanced undergraduate, graduate, and research scientists) to help with sample processing, RNA extraction, and other tasks

COVID-19 testing was an all-hands-on deck, 24-7 responsibility for the pathology labs, according to Sixto Leal, MD, PhD, an assistant professor with the department who helped spearhead the effort. At the height of the pandemic last summer, he recognized that it was a time for the team to shine. He was correct: In the midst of one of the most serious global medical crises in recent history – and while working behind the scenes away from the spotlight – “shine” is exactly what the Department of Pathology and Hospital Labs did.

Today, the pathology labs are expanding their excellent work by developing methods to track COVID-19 variants as mutations are detected, even as they continue to process and analyze COVID-19 tests.

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