Unsung heroes: Lab techs running COVID-19 tests handle hundreds of live samples each day

When we think “frontline workers,” we might limit it to doctors and nurses. But there are people handling hundreds of live COVID-19 samples each day to get the test results we need.

“The amount of stress and the expectations that are on us are huge,” said Tyler Toggweiler.

Tyler Toggweiler, 26, is a lab technician at Orchard Laboratories in West Bloomfield. Just a month ago, the private lab was testing pathogens and saliva samples. Then the pandemic struck.

“Everybody, for a while, thought it was under control, and as soon as we realized that it wasn’t, we kind of all had a sense that we were going to definitely need to help out if the hospital systems weren’t able to get enough testing done on their own -- someone was going to have step in and help,” he said.

Now they’re running between 400-600 samples a day.

“It is pretty stressful. I mean we have to be more cautious. More careful than anybody else in any given situation, we’re handling these samples as you said, we’re handling positive control samples that confirm what’s positive,” Toggweiler said.

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On top of the risks -- they’ve been working around the clock to keep up with demand -- 7 days a week, three different shifts, 50 to 70 hours a week.

“Myself, and all of my coworkers, are all working anywhere from 50-70 hours a week trying to keep up with the madness,” he said.

So how does testing actually work? Each sample arrives in an individual bag from nursing homes, urgent care centers, or doctor’s offices. 

“There can’t be any mistakes because we don’t want to accidentally give the patient a positive result. We’ve got to really focus on that,” he said.

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The process is called real-time polymerase chain reaction. “The COVID virus has certain genes specific to the virus. We will pretty much amplify patient samples and see if this gene shows up in the samples,” Tyler said.

They can test 94 samples at a time in about 4 hours.

“It’s not as many positives as people would think but there’s definitely a good amount. Maybe out of every plate of 94 ... less than 25 percent, but in the range of 10-20 each time. So they’re definitely consistently appearing,” he said.

Tyler says at this point, there are no signs things are slowing down. 

“We have no margin for error, no time to even have to go back and re-run samples so we have to be as perfect as possible about everything. Trying to hit that 400-600 sample mark per day, we want to be able to keep at that pace if not more -- otherwise we’re just going to keep falling further and further behind, and then it would feel like even more pressure is on us. The pressure is at a maximum right now,” he said.

But they’re working hard day after day -- putting themselves at risk to get patients the test results they need.

“(It) definitely will make a lasting impact on all of our lives here at Orchard,” he said. “It’s almost like why we went into this field ... We’re doing it because we need to, the world needs us, we can't say no - might as well step up to the plate.”

Visit orchardtox.com for more information.

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