Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So when the COVID-19 global pandemic caused a shortage of both nasopharyngeal swabs and universal transport medium (UTM), Calvin Bohanan and his laboratory team had to get creative.

“We started brainstorming,” said Calvin, the director of Laboratory Services at Norman Regional. “We bounced ideas off each other. We asked all of our med techs what they could come up with. We asked the experienced techs, ‘What processes did you do 20 years ago?’ We asked the new techs, ‘What can you come up with that’s outside the box?’”

While discussing the supplies needed for the COVID-19 test, the team they realized the same swabs and UTM they needed are included in a testing kit for a different disease. They ordered 10,000 kits which arrived just three days later. The team quickly pulled out the swabs and UTM they needed.

While those supplies helped, it wasn’t going to be enough for all the testing the health system would be required to do. Since they couldn’t find the UTM, they decided to make it.

“I found the recipe for making it on the CDC website,” said Zac Ratzlaff, lab supervisor. “We were definitely excited. We hadn’t made media back here in forever. I’ve worked here for 16 years and I have never made it,” Zac said.

First, they had to track down all the ingredients, which was also a challenge. One ingredient was on back order. So they reached out to other facilities that use it including pharmacies and veterinary clinics.

Another challenge was the clock. Calvin and his team had to find answers quickly as the virus began to spread through the community. So instead of testing just one possible solution at a time, they would investigate several possibilities simultaneously.  

“We had multiple avenues going at the same time,” Calvin said. “We didn’t just want to sit around and wait only to find out that one solution didn’t work before starting on the next one.”

It’s a good thing they didn’t. One avenue led them to swabs created by a 3D printer. The swabs were quickly ruled out.

“It looked like a torture device,” Zac said. “Very, very rigid and very hard. It’s not something I would want to use on a real person, that’s for sure.”

Once the team came up with solutions for collecting the samples, the next step was to find a lab to test them. The labs they typically use were able to process the tests initially, but they quickly became overwhelmed as testing spiked across the country.

“At that point we knew we needed to figure out a way to bring it in-house,” Zac said. “So we started reaching out to any and all manufacturers with different options.”

They quickly found the biggest hill to climb was time. With demand so high, many companies said they couldn’t have anything available until June, July or even 2021.

“Really, the only one that had what we needed was Thermo Fisher,” Zac said. “They were able to send us an instrument in about a week-and-a-half that we could run the test through.”

Both Calvin and Zac said the fight against COVID-19 has definitely been unique.

“Nothing really compares to this,” Zac said. “H1N1 is the only thing even close, but we could still test for the flu we just couldn’t identify the strain. That was the biggest difference. There was no test for this. I’ve never seen a virus show up and us not be able to do any testing for it. I’ve been in tech for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Calvin believes the roller coaster ride is far from over.

“It’s been an interesting ride, and we’re still going,” Calvin said. “It’s changing every day. I’m extremely proud of my team for thinking outside the box.”

The NRHS lab was recently named 2020 Lab of the Year runner-up by Medical Laboratory Observer, the premier laboratory journal.

lab services department