Fair wages and hazard pay for Laboratory Professionals during COVID-19 pandemic

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While not in a room holding a patient's hand or helping to intubate patients of the COVID-19 pandemic, we Clinical Laboratory Scientists, phlebotomists and lab assistants are in the lab handling the many infectious specimens from these same highly infectious patients. We, too, are on the front line placing ourselves at risk. The shortage of PPE and staffing also affects the laboratory which in turn directly affects patient care.  

I have been seeing many posts and media articles lamenting the fact that we are too far behind in COVID-19 testing from where we should be, and I felt perhaps it was a good time to give a little extra insight into this issue. Let's look at some important stats. 

In the United States right now, there are approximately 310,000 laboratory professionals employed. There are 2.89 million nurses employed. There are 1.2 million doctors. In the US, there are approximately 350 million citizens. For laboratory professionals who take the brunt of all tests, that leaves 1129 people per one laboratory scientist, and one person averages 39 various tests per year, which culminates in 14 billion tests.

Right now, in this pandemic, we are at a shortage for testing supplies. This is something many media sources are reporting daily, and leads us all to believe that the biggest hindrance to testing volume in the US directly hinges on the availability of testing supplies... But this is not the only hindrance, and perhaps it is time to shine light on another hidden shortcoming in this country.

We are at a severe shortage of testing professionals, and we have been for many years. Our profession is one that tends to hide in the background despite our integral roles in disease research, patient care, treatment, and diagnoses... and this is because we tend to be the introverts or the nerds of healthcare, and we like it this way. Most other healthcare professionals don't even realize we require 5-7 years of college education.

Last week, in a 6 day period, the US performed 335,000 COVID-19/SARS2 tests. At the time, there were 62 labs capable of performing this testing. Each test takes approximately 15 minutes of hands-on time, and these 62 labs employ approximately 1600 lab scientists. This means 83,750 hours of testing occurred across 1600 people. To accomplish this, each scientist would have required 52 hours to accomplish this volume ON TOP of all the other testing that is required on a normal basis, since I think we all realize other diseases don't stop due to a single viral outbreak. And this is all assuming none of these professionals get sick.

We are at a severe shortage of testing supplies, yes. But for too many years now, we have also been at a critical shortage of the only professionals capable and trained to run these tests for the 3rd largest population in the world.

Hospitals do not recognize our importance in the COVID-19 battle. Now is the time to shine the light on our role in healthcare. But as we place ourselves at risk to help our patients, we deserve the same consideration as the other healthcare workers on the front line. Fair wages and hazard pay would go a long way to help bring in more scientists to help in the hard hit areas and in the areas that have yet to be hit. 

It's time we start telling our kids and our friends about the hidden side of healthcare so we can be better equipped in the future. The strain and the stress is overwhelming for many labs in our country, and they are doing an unbelievable job, as are the faces at the front of this pandemic- our nurses, doctors, RT's, phlebotomists, EMT's, EVS and many others. We are also very lucky to have MLT's and lab assistants in our ranks to work alongside us in the lab. We are all working hard and we are all in this fight together.