Almost every night on the news - we show you the COVID-19 infographic. It lists how many tests have been done, along with the number of negative and positive results, number of persons under investigation and more recently the number of recovered persons. But behind that tidy infographic are at least a dozen men and women working 24-7 to contain the spread by confirming active infections.
And less than a month into Belize's first 21st. century pandemic, they're marking Medical Professionals Laboratory week while still bogged down in countless COVID investigations. This morning Cherisse Halsall went into the lab where these frontline workers are carrying out what is likely the most important work being done in 2020.
It's a building that goes pretty much unnoticed but tucked away beside the KHMH, the National Referral Hospital, sits the national referral Laboratory the Central Medical Lab. It's here that tests which are unable to be carried out at nationwide hospitals are conducted. Those tests include: Viral load testing, CD4 Testing, and Thyroid function testing, but more recently Central Medical Lab has come to public attention as the only authorized testing facility for COVID19. And this morning we spoke to acting Director Of Laboratory Services Juvencio Chan about the drastic changes that had to be made to accommodate nationwide testing.
Juvencio Chan - Acting Director of Laboratory Services, Belize Central Medical Lab "Central Medical Lab used to be a Monday work schedule 8-5 due to COVID-19 we had to change our working time. It's now a 24-7 service. We have people on standby, we have people working shifts. We used to do only for micro-B Monday to Sunday doing before. What happens is once we entered into this emergency mode and we had planned this we had sat down with the management team of the central lab to plan how we would work in the event that we got to this point so practically some areas of the lab. The demand is not there like before. At the beginning yes, it was who they had highlighted to us that we needed to test. After the second test, it had turned to every request that had come to COVID-19 has been honored. COVID-19 is just another test that is added to our menu. We had been doing PCR testing for influenza so it's just the protocol that has changed. The SOP that has changed. It's practically the same step but just a different re-agent of primaries and probes we call that are changed. Before it was just I need X, Y,and Z to be done now if we have A to Z and we need to do all of those we do all of those. We do batches at the beginning we used to do. If we got one sample we run one sample but of course with running one sample you have other expenses. You have to include your controls, your calibrators and you know it's the amount of re-agent that is used to do one and compared to doing a batch. It's more beneficial to run it by batch."
Michelle Escobar is one of the Women running those batches. And while Molecular Biology isn't her normal focus she's had to chip in to help her colleagues as the demand for tests rises. We wondered if she's felt pressured by the Lab's new and constant media attention.
Michelle Escobar "To be frank, at the beginning I was very updated but now COVID is taking a toll on us so we have to have a good mindset, have a fresh mind to come to work and we keep updated with the most imported ones and especially our lab keeps us up to date."
That seems like the Motto of the Lab and a sentiment I heard from each and every Central Lab staff member including Medical Technologist Ruby Aguillon who says that lab results have on several occasions granted patients access to much needed care
We have had cases where some institutions don't want to deal with the patient unless the results are ready and so we have to try and fasten the procedure, fasten our day because we have set aside those other tasks in order for us to have the time to do the screening for that sample.
And these lab tech's have indeed displayed courage on the extreme frontline of Belize's fight against COVID-19 knowing that their efforts are the shot in the dark that will ultimately put an end to the lockdown threatening every facet of society.
Aldo Sosa - Laboratory Supervisor "I believe like in anything else there's a certain fear. I'm happy to say that our staff here has at no point in time expressed panic, undue panic, unrealistic panic as has been seen outside with. With what you have in the other Health care workers but yes we're exposed in that we're dealing with the sample we are actually as I mentioned in the extraction process that look for the virus. So we do have that exposure in here but again I will repeat that we're happy that our staff has risen up to the challenge. This is what they signed up for, and they keep themselves protected."
But the staff at Central Medical Laboratory are like us all, only human and another of the Medical Technologists, Reena Usher, explained how trying the scrutiny and criticism can be when working under pressure in such extreme circumstances.
Reena Usher Ordonez - Medical Technologists and Safety Officer "We are the ones who have to be doing the testing. We have to leave home every day to come here and deal with the samples to ensure that you guys get the results that are needed. We have to end up going home to our kids, our kids can't come and run to us and hug us as we get home like the norm. We have to take off our shoes, take off our clothes, hurry, take a bath before our kids could come to us."
"It's a pandemic and it's the first time Belize really has to deal with a pandemic and to be scrutinized daily and being insulted by people who have no idea what we do here or what it takes to work here in the laboratory, it hurts sometimes to read all of those comments and stuff like that I try to refrain from responding to some people but I just ask them to have a little more empathy, to have compassion, to have patience, because it's a process and a lot of people are bashing the government but we here It's not because we work with the government but we can see how hard their trying. We can see them really thinking before purchasing any kits because they need to ensure that it's the best quality to get the best results and we don't have to get kits that don't work properly or would require more time, be more time consuming or we get it and get false positive or false negative results you know we want accurate results that could be received in a timely manner. So I just want the public to have empathy and be considerate of us working here in the laboratory."
It's a daunting mission and it continues. Belize has gone 9 days without a positive test and we all hope that trend continues. But whether or not the news is good or bad it will continue to come at the hands of the staff of the Central Medical Lab.
And there's more from Central Medical Laboratory tomorrow night when we continue to celebrate Lab week with a full tour of the facility.