Locally, the COVID-19 fourth wave was a tsunami for the National Laboratory Services, as hundreds of samples and positive cases wrestled and befuddled experts.
Speaking at last week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, Mitchelle Maylor-Archat, coordinator for medical technology services at National Laboratory Services, said the fourth wave pushed the lab to the limit.
“The fourth wave was fast and it was more than the highest numbers that you could ever think of that came to us. There was just something about it that is unforgettable. The positivity rate in the fourth wave hit us the hardest,” she said.
Maylor-Archat was among a team of health professionals who sat with the Observer ahead of plans by the Ministry of Health and Wellness to recognise the work of their colleagues during Healthcare Workers Appreciation Month in July.
Maylor-Archat explained that when doing statistics for COVID-19 test results at the lab, the negatives and positives are grouped. At the start of the pandemic, she said, it was easier to count the positive samples as they were fewer. But by the fourth wave, that was no more.
“We started counting the negatives because it was easier to count the number of negative cases and then say okay, those are the positives. Believe it or not, it was harder to prepare your results in those instances because you want to ensure that there is no form of contamination,” she stated.
“Each batch contains 94 results, so when you look at the results and you see 81 out of 94 are positive, you are saying, ‘Was there a contamination?’ or ‘Was there a carry over?’ We were asking how is it that we had so many positive cases. We couldn’t believe it. We had to go back and do all the traceability and ensure that we were sending all the correct results,” she continued.
Contrasting both periods, Maylor-Archat said though the second wave was also challenging, it was a lot more manageable than the fourth.
“During the second wave, we had a lot more samples coming in because this was when they had opened the borders to a limit and everybody coming in was required to be tested. We were getting the samples and we set our turnaround time to provide the results, and we were able to do that. I think we were okay. But the fourth wave was just different.”
Throughout the pandemic on a whole, she added, the workload met by the lab was unprecedented, which was compounded by the fact that team members had to take on roles not only in the lab as they were accustomed, but also in the field.
“We never thought that there were days between Saturday and Sunday. We came up with other days. We had like ‘Smonday’ (Sunday and Monday) because we were just working. For the past two years for me, I think I lived at work and visited home, and that was for the majority of us. I remember late last year I started noticing that some of the staff members were running around the building and they were asking me if I don’t see that they are getting fat,” Maylor-Archat said, noting that workers had to be taking time out to look at their health.
“We were working 24 hours, seven days a week. People started to come up with different ways to cope. It was the latter part of 2021 that I shifted from 24-hour service and tried to have a 12-hour service,” she said.
She noted, however, that 12 hours at work did not mean that work ended when she is at home.
“I mean 12 hours at the workplace. I am still available in the 24 hours,” she said.
One of the things that the lab wasn’t planning to do was being a part of the sample collection team. But at the peak of the pandemic, the medical technologists were immersed in that aspect.
“We work in the lab, so the samples come to us and we process them. But something happened in Jamaica and the permanent secretary called me one night and he said, ‘Mrs Archart, we need members of the lab team to go out into the field and take samples.’ We had never done this before,” she said, recalling that some members were reluctant to do so.
At that time, she urged them, “Let us think on it. It’s all hands on deck.”
“Of course, people stepped in and we trained 35 personnel for the first batch to do the swabbing. The younger persons found it very exciting to be out in the field and interacting with people. Taking on this new layer of responsibility not only benefited the Ministry of Health, but also the team members — from time to time, we would swab ourselves to ensure that we are safe, and to ensure that we are ready and available to continue the service.”
Further, she said, because COVID-19 testing became a big money maker, it added demands on the lab as well.
“Everybody was doing COVID tests everywhere you go. We were required to do swabbing and testing and then antigen testing. We had to train people to do antigen testing but not just that, we were required to go out and inspect the areas where antigen tests were being done to ensure that they had some level of standard in offering these tests,” she said.
“Every step of the way, there were piled up responsibilities. It was a whole heap. Even test kits that were coming into the country were piling up on us. Think about it, you’re getting 2,000 samples and here you still have new kits coming in and in order to do the validation we had to run 500 tests on these kits and then assess these data to advise the CMO. We survived, but we don’t know how. Personally, I still question myself as to how I did it. I don’t know how. It just happened,” she said.