Much of that work is done through building relationships and strengthening collaborations . When reflecting on the challenges of managing current and past outbreaks , many laboratory directors cite the importance of strong local and regional networks . When the Minnesota Public Health Laboratory was forced to evacuate in May on extremely short notice due to civil unrest , the staff were able to redirect all their incoming samples to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester , a few hours away . In Louisville , where prior to COVID-19 the laboratory did not perform routine respiratory testing , Wolf arranged to get samples from nearby laboratories to complete COVID-19 test validation for an emergency use authorization . The Fairfax County Public Health Laboratory
was able to obtain point-of-care molecular testing equipment from the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services
( DCLS ) and a mobile laboratory unit from the county fire and rescue department to host community events and conduct point prevalence surveys .
Just knowing there is someone else to call on can be a huge mental boon , says Deborah Severson , BSMT ( ASCP ), director of the Fairfax County Public Health Laboratory . The collaborative spirit between the county laboratory and DCLS is “ just phenomenal ,” she said . “ If they need help , we ’ re here . If we need help , they ’ re there .”
We are now recognized for what we ’ re doing to support our states . And we have to use that platform well , to make others in our state recognize the importance of a public health laboratory . We can ’ t squander this opportunity .”
Mike Pentella , PhD , MS , D ( ABMM )
Within the laboratory , the director must keep a finger on the pulse of the people and processes that keep everything running . It is critical to know the ins and outs of the laboratory workflow to make smart decisions .
Kunas noted the value of being able to step back for perspective on where — and how — to improve . “ The space that we normally use to accession samples is tight , and social distancing was hard to achieve . Our staff talked for a long time about moving on really high surge days into our training lab , a larger space where everything ’ s on wheels so we can flex it a lot better . There was conversation and conversation for weeks , and nothing was changing ,” she said . Kunas brought in a facilitator to talk through the workflow and create a project plan . At first , she said , people were upset by the outside intervention , but she ensured that the members of the team that would be using the space were part of the conversations . In two weeks , they had a plan in place , and by week three the changes were made .
Especially during stressful times , transparency , honesty and open lines of communication are essential for directors , said Denise Toney , PhD , HCLD , laboratory director of DCLS . “ We don ’ t have all the answers . I think as long as you let people know what you ’ re doing , why you ’ re doing things , and that you ’ re making the best decisions you can based on the information that you have , they will trust you ,” she said . “ And if you make wrong decisions , fix them quickly .”
That trust from staff and partners needs to be earned , Cannons said , and it goes both ways . “ I think a leader has to know their limitations ,” he said . “ I don ’ t profess to know everything about public health or in the lab , but I know who to turn to .”
Often , the best advice comes from within the laboratory . “ You have something to learn from everyone on your staff ,” Pentella said . Prior to the pandemic , he held quarterly listening lunches with randomly selected staff from across all areas of the laboratory . Too often , he says , the director can be one of the last people to hear about a problem . “ A director has to realize that when somebody is telling you about something that you may not want to hear , it ’ s really important information to you . It ’ s not personal ,” he said . “ To do your job well , listen , and try to make improvements where you can . You can ’ t solve every problem . Solve the ones you can . But most importantly , listen to people .”
Of course , any laboratory is only as good as the people who work there . Wolf views looking out for her staff ’ s safety and wellbeing as one of her most important roles . “ One of my concerns during this response has been watching for people burning out . We feel like we ’ ve been running a race for a really long time ,” she said . It is critical to acknowledge that everyone is coping with many burdens , both in and out of the laboratory .
Severson agreed . “ My staff is so dedicated and committed . They come in early and stay late to ensure that all testing is completed and results issued the
The loading dock that the Minnesota Public Health Laboratory shares with the neighboring National Guard armory was used as a staging area during protests . Photo : Minnesota PHL