Building Capacity While Fighting COVID-19 in New Mexico
by Jody DeVoll , MAT , writer
In October 2019 , Michael Edwards , PhD , HCLD ( ABB ), the new director of the Scientific Laboratory Division
( SLD ) of the Public Health Department of New Mexico , walked through the laboratory ’ s doors , ready to begin work . Three months later , the first cases of a deadly emerging disease , COVID-19
, appeared in the US . By March 2020 , with COVID-19 decimating communities nationwide , SLD , like many other public health laboratories , plunged into surge mode . It continues to operate at that level a year later .
Though Edwards could never have foreseen that his new job would welcome him with the worst pandemic in a century , he is sanguine about the experience : “ Chaos and crisis are a great way to develop relationships . COVID-19 has been a bonding experience . I ’ ve been able to get to know my staff and partners quicker than I would have otherwise .”
Since SLD is one of only two laboratories in the state that conduct COVID-19 testing , the laboratory has assumed a lead role in shaping state response to the pandemic . Edwards is a regular on statewide planning calls for COVID-19 response . He and the SLD team also have helped underserved groups , including the large indigenous populations , with laboratory testing and consultations .
Located adjacent to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque , the 10-year-old facility houses SLD as well as laboratories for the state medical examiner and state veterinarian . In the fall of 2019 , the SLD fit within its allotted space albeit with no room to spare . However , “ The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the boundaries of our facility . We had to get creative .” Staff repurposed every available space to manage the thousands of samples arriving each day . For example , the all-hazards receiving facility became overflow space for sample receiving .
SLD ’ s laboratory information management system ( LIMS ) has provided reliable reporting throughout the surge . “ Initially we had to massage our system to handle the increased volumes , but we solved that problem , and we ’ ve been able to keep up with frequent changes to COVID reporting requirements thanks to our resourceful staff . We also brought on several LIMS enhancements to increase our efficiency .”
In 2019 SLD staff numbered 130 . When the surge hit in March 2020 , staff labored in shifts 24 / 7 , logging countless overtime and weekend hours . By mid-April , they were exhausted . Reinforcements were needed ASAP , but “ There ’ s not a lot of microbiologists hanging out in New Mexico .” So SLD pulled recruits from all available sources — bringing in members of the National Guard , tapping recent graduates of the University of New Mexico , soliciting talent from temp agencies and hiring microbiologists with funding provided through the federal CARES Act of 2020 . As of January 2021 , the SLD has 200 staff members , all working full out .
A microbiologist by training , Edwards is a California native who has worked in public health laboratories since 2006 . Prior to coming to New Mexico , he was the director of the San Joaquin County Public Health Laboratory
. “ I got lots of experience , because you have to be a jack-of-all-trades at a local lab .” He finds public health laboratory work rewarding because “ You ’ re constantly changing and upgrading and learning new things plus you know that what you ’ re doing is helping people .” He also has found New Mexico to his liking .
“ They ’ re great people here at the lab and across the state . I can see myself staying in New Mexico for many more years .”
The laboratory ’ s $ 15.9 million annual budget is funded through a combination of state general funds , federal grants and some fee-for-service work . The state court system pays the Forensic Toxicology Laboratory to support DWI enforcement .
Chemist Janice Y . loads the LC-MS / MS instrument in the Chemical Terrorism Analytical Response laboratory . Photo : New Mexico SLD
26 LAB MATTERS Winter 2021