With almost 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Whatcom County, the need for greater testing capacity has grown in order to find and then treat those who have contracted the virus.
Northwest Laboratory in Bellingham has stepped up to fill that need – along with a team of student workers from Western.
In mid-March, the laboratory was prioritized to be among the first labs in the state to receive coronavirus testing kits and instruments. By March 27, the laboratory received approval by the state to begin COVID-19 testing, and is currently one of three high capacity testing sites in Washington along with the University of Washington and Washington State Public Health Lab.
But with the distribution of testing kits and instruments came the need for a large increase in additional trained staff to run the tests. Gregory Wolgamot and Ryan Fortna, two Northwest Laboratory pathologists with doctorates in molecular biology, lead the laboratory’s efforts. They oversee testing validation and operations, often spending the whole day in the clinical lab.
“This is not a simple push-button test,” Wolgamot said. “A lot of lab tests, you put the sample in, and you push a button and the machine spits out the answer because everything is so automated. Although parts of this test are automated, other parts require a lot of knowledge and skill.”
It’s because of those testing requirements that Northwest Laboratory needed to hire additional people who know molecular biology and understand the testing process. The new employees needed to be skilled with transferring liquids to different places in the lab, or pipetting. Wolgamot recognized this early on and was trying to think about how to find those people in the community.
“I was out walking around the neighborhood with this question burning on my mind,” Wolgamot said. “How are we going to find people to do the testing?”
On that walk, Wolgamot ran into Dave Hooper, a Western professor of Biology, who was also out on a walk that night. The two talked through the obstacles Wolgamot was having around equipment and staffing, and they realized that Western students could be the resource they needed.
“It was interesting how this all came about,” Hooper said. “It was very much by chance. It’s a great example of Western’s partnerships with community businesses and organizations, and it highlights the importance of that connection.”
After those initial conversations, Hooper sent out an email to see if there were any molecular biology graduate or undergraduate students that were interested in helping the lab test for COVID-19. The Northwest Laboratory team ended up getting 36 responses, and the students were quickly brought in and given the training they needed.
“It’s kind of a neat story,” Wolgamot said. “They came to the rescue and said ‘hey, let’s help.’”
Riley Haner, a fourth-year biology undergraduate student at Western from Klickitat County, was one of the 36 students who responded. After he applied, he was brought onto the team on April 1. He was hesitant at first about what his responsibilities were and who he would be working with, and said the most anxiety-producing thing of working at the lab was the unknown transmission rates of COVID-19.
“I’ve actually been pleasantly satisfied with the experience, especially the hands-on stuff,” Haner said. “I was happy to work alongside the doctors and gain a lot of first-hand experience from their perspectives in following through procedures and how they think about the procedures, protocols, and the pathological sense of the pandemic.”
During their training, the students are supervised by Fortna and Wolgamot. The training has no defined timeline; it varies for each student depending on their comfort level and skill set. As the students grow more comfortable and knowledgeable in their job, less supervision is required. Jennifer Bull, the COO of Northwest Laboratory, said the process has taken about three weeks and most of the students are now starting to work independently.
I was happy to work alongside the doctors and gain a lot of first-hand experience from their perspectives in following through procedures and how they think about the procedures, protocols, and the pathological sense of the pandemic.
Rachel Mallon, a Western alumna with a master’s degree in biology, was one of the people who answered Northwest Laboratory’s call for help and was hired as a PCR Technician. Mallon has taken the lead on scheduling and communicating with the Western student team of PCR Technicians, affectionately called by the other staff like Wolgamot as the "Awesome COVID Team,” or “ACT!”
“The training process was a crash course,” Mallon said. “This is a new thing for Northwest Labs, and we’ve been needing to be flexible for this new assay. The doctors are still trying to figure some things out, and we who are running the test are finding ways to make this test better. It definitely has been a steep learning curve.”
The students already had the necessary technical skills they learned through their lab courses, so Northwest Laboratory trained them on basic safety procedures and HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which mandates industry-wide regulations and standards that aim to protect confidential health care information.
“Coming from Western, it’s been nice working with the community and contributing to assist with the pandemic,” Haner said. “Being able to stay in town and help has been great.”