The Monterey County Public Health Laboratory has increased its COVID-19 testing capacity seven-fold over the last five weeks. It’s thanks to one graduate student who offered a helping hand after a story aired on KAZU public radio.
Back on March 18, KAZU posted a story about the challenges facing the local public health lab during the coronavirus pandemic. With only three people conducting coronavirus testing at the lab, there was concern over possible staff burnout.
Paul Bump found the story on social media and wondered if he could help. He’s a Ph.D student in biology at Stanford University, based at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. He’s got some lab experience.
“It just so happens that the weird scale of like transferring clear liquids from one tube to another very, very carefully without making any mistakes, I'm doing that for eight years. And so, it's like, I think I have the skills and experience and background to be of use,” said Bump.
In his normal work, Bump studies, as he puts it, small, squishy marine animals. He reached out to the head of the lab.
“So immediately after that program aired, I received an email from Paul Bump,” said Dr. Donna Ferguson, the Director of Monterey County Public Health Lab.
“And I was really thrilled about that because it's very hard to find people who have those laboratory skills,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson had already tried to hire another lab worker at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to help with testing but had been told that wasn’t possible because of budget constraints.
It was suggested she ask the few retired microbiologists to help out. But that also wasn’t an option. Ferguson didn’t want them back in the lab because of the greater risk that COVID-19 poses to people over the age of 60.
One option that was suggested was to borrow scientists from local hospital labs. Unfortunately, Ferguson felt that wasn’t going to work.
“It's sort of like baking a cake. So basically what the hospitals have is that box mix of the cake mix. You know what I'm saying? So it's user friendly. It's ready to go… almost failure proof. That's not the type of testing that we do here in the laboratory,” said Ferguson.
Luckily Ph.D student Paul Bump could do the type of coronavirus testing the lab was doing. And it’s not the only thing he was able to do.
“So I had e-mailed her and then my next thought was, OK, wait a minute, I have these skill sets, but I know other people who do as well,” said Bump.
Bump contacted other students he knew locally and Ferguson got emails from around 20 students offering to help.
Along with one student already working at the lab, she was able to take on five more students from Stanford, Cal State Monterey Bay and UC Santa Cruz. Ferguson wished she could have taken more, but there just isn’t enough space in the lab.
The students are each volunteering, without pay, about 20 to 30 hours a week, while keeping up with their own studies.
Bump says he’s very aware of the importance of the work he’s doing.
“It's pretty sobering because, you know, the work that I do, at the end of experiment, I don't find out that someone's maybe sick,” said Bump.
Because of the students, the Monterey County Public Health Lab has been able to expand its testing hours, starting earlier in the day and finishing later at night. They’ve also gone from testing about 20 specimens a day at the beginning of the pandemic, to a record number of 150 tests a day now.
This benefits patients in both Monterey and San Benito counties. The lab is able to get results to those areas either within the same day the specimens arrive, or the next.
It also benefits the full time public health microbiologists. Dr Donna Ferguson says because of the students, they’ve had a day off here and there.
“I couldn't imagine us carrying on testing for another month without our students,” said Ferguson.
She says they feel a lot less pressure and she’s not so worried about staff burnout anymore.