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The receiving desk of the Mass General Clinical Microbiology Laboratory is always bustling. In typical times, technologists and clinical lab assistants would handle more than 1,000 samples to be tested for bacteria, viruses or parasites in a single day. 

“But when COVID-19 hit, routine work plummeted, and the avalanche of COVID specimens began,” says Heather Wilson, receiving desk supervisor.

The lab has since performed nearly 60,000 COVID-19 tests. Jackie Eversley, the lab’s technical director, notes the speed with which staff, ordinarily working regular weekday hours, organized themselves into a two-shift, seven-day-per-week operation. “They’ve just buckled down to do what needs to be done,” she says.

Technologists can put in as many as 12,000 steps for shift as they pick up COVID-19 test samples at the receiving desk, return to the bench, prepare the samples under a biological safety cabinet, load a diagnostic machine with as many as 94 samples, and repeat. 

On top of the sheer volume the lab has handled, this new disease required staff to create new workflows and processes from scratch. 

As the lab moved from sending all samples to the state lab to testing completely in-house, staff had to keep up with constant changes. “The joke has been, ‘What’s new this hour, this minute?’” says Wilson.

The lab has also been responsible for providing testing kits to clinicians. Staff have been pulled into kit-assembly duty, sitting at hallway tables to label hundreds of bags and stuffing them with swabs and other supplies.

The workload won’t let up any time soon. “Though we’re seeing fewer positive results, the volume of COVID testing hasn’t really changed; in addition, we’re getting back to normal with other routine tests,” says Wilson.

Medical technologist Elda Vladasi adds, “The past few months have been surreal for us, but the team has been great, pulling all this weight together.”