Bioterrorism Coordinator and Supervising Public Health MIcrobiologist Jean Ventura trains new staff on how to process white powder letters . Photo : Sacramento PHL
“ One of the most important things that we ’ ve been able to establish is crosstraining for all our staff . And when the pandemic hit , we were able to ramp up surge testing relatively quickly because of this practice .”
While Sacramento is not physically a large laboratory , it serves a large community including correctional health and extended care service agencies in the geographic area . And because of its BSL-3 rating , it was able to respond to the 2022 mpox outbreak , identifying the first case in California .
“ In fiscal year 2021-2022 , we performed over 83,000 tests for SARS-CoV-2 , in addition to all our other testing . We would not have been able to do it without our new molecular platforms or our staff who are able to jump in where needed .”
Staff & Revenue
Along with its full-time public health microbiologists , the facility has a dedicated information technology person in the laboratory .
“ Since implementing bidirectional interfaces with our external public health community , our IT person has been vital ,” Gonzalez said . “ As microbiologists , we have nowhere near the training or sophistication required to create , implement and maintain those important interfaces .” Not only does the IT person work with laboratory staff to ensure the interfaces are working correctly , but they are also regularly communicating with the end users to ensure data accuracy .
“ Even though our end users are in the same building , that doesn ’ t mean we ’ re looking at the same information , and feedback from them has been critical to maintain data quality .”
The laboratory also has a central support area that helps speed the laboratory ’ s work by formulating reagents and ensuring that the required supplies are available . There is also the front office staff who work with the public and clients and ensure billing procedures run smoothly . And an administrative service officer oversees the annual multimillion dollar budget comprised of a mixture of grants and county funds .
Successes & Challenges
Perhaps the laboratory ’ s biggest success is its response to innovations in laboratory testing , especially during the COVID-19 pandemic . But with the move to molecular platforms and more automated results reporting , there is still room for the human touch . Gonzalez tells the story of a laboratory tour he gave a colleague a few months ago . The colleague , who retired 20 years ago , commented on how different laboratories look today with sophisticated automation .
“ The laboratory itself — and laboratory safety — is much different today than it was even five years ago ,” notes Gonzalez . “ We used to pride ourselves on knowing the biochemical reactions that identified certain species of bacteria and fungi , but today you ’ re going to have to be familiar with the molecular data that identifies microbial species . And you are still going to have to start with the best specimen you can get … transport , temperature , primary culture and gram stain processes are still the same .”
Gonzalez credits his dedicated team for its successful response to the laboratory ’ s evolution over the years . No matter what new crisis comes along or new technology that is developed , the staff keep a critical eye on maintaining quality in all phases of their work .
“ We talk about it all the time ,” he said . “ It ’ s not about turning out a lot of results as fast as you can . Our goal is to provide consistently accurate and reliable results in a timely manner .”
As a part of a sizable network of local and county public health laboratories in California , his non-scientific staff don ’ t have quite as much mobility within the laboratory as his microbiologists and technicians do . “ We ’ re limited on what we can offer as far as expansion and promotions for office staff . So , if they want a promotion , it ’ s pretty easy for them to move within the county system to a higher position in another program or another part of the county . And we can ’ t do what we do without our administrative support .” Conversely , those positions are almost harder to recruit and retain .
As well as cross-training of staff on all laboratory processes and procedures , Gonzalez is focused on where the laboratory fits into the larger public health community . He is also aware that his time in the laboratory , as well as other folks who have been working for 20 + years , is likely to end soon . So not only is professional training and certification integral to his laboratorians , but leadership skills and qualities are also critical .
“ We ’ ve done a lot of work with our workforce in letting them know not only where they fit into the grand scheme of things , but how they can thrive and adapt to new challenges . Our early adopters [ of technology ] are really helping to bring our new microbiologists — and some of us old timers — up to speed .” g
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Summer 2023 LAB MATTERS 9