CLN Daily

COVID-19 Insights from Ground Zero

Steven W. Cotten, PhD, DABCC, FADLM

Before there was a national shortage of toilet paper, before we had an obsession with sourdough starter, and before hand sanitizer and social distancing were essential to everyday life, one region of the country was feeling the effects of SARS-CoV-2 when the rest of the country was only dimly aware of the threat.

Washington state became the first hotspot in March 2020 and its response, largely coordinated through the University of Washington, would, in the months to come, inform countless other hospitals, clinical laboratories, and state agencies.

Now we get to pull back the curtain and hear directly from Geoffrey Baird, MD, PhD, and Patrick Mathias, MD, PhD, in their scientific session on Thursday, December 17 at 11:00 am Central, “Clinical Laboratory Direction in the Apocalypse: Responding to the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic in the First Hotspot in the US” about steps taken at the very beginning of the outbreak.

Geoffrey Baird, MD PhD, interim chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington, describes how the lab was able to respond so early to the pandemic and what led the institution to be in a position to do half of all U.S. coronavirus testing by March 9.

“We did what most people would do if they are given the resources,” Baird says. “We applied the basic principles of laboratory medicine and implemented what we are all taught to drive success.”

During this scientific session, Baird also shares what it was like in the early spring coordinating stakeholders and leading state-wide efforts. His advice includes assembling a strong team of people, then getting out of the way to let them do their work. The University of Washington’s experience is unique compared to other academic medical centers in that Baird and his colleagues quickly scaled up testing to support 40% of COVID-19 testing for the entire state. An early start, some key planning, and quick decision-making allowed for a strong response right out of the gate.

A second speaker, Patrick Mathias, MD, PhD, tackles what it was like managing the clinical informatics and the flow of general information generated by the laboratory during the first months of the pandemic. “When almost half of your testing is coming from outside the health system, coordination is paramount,” Mathias says.

Mathias describes that leadership support is needed on all sides—from CEOs, governors, universities, and hospitals. Mathias also emphasizes that communication is key when working with local health authorities. “The magnitude of our lab’s response for the community is unique to an academic medical center and we had to develop trusted relationships with multiple stakeholders,” he says.

Mathias’ presentation also explains how rapidly the situation evolved and what was done to keep up with the flow of information. With the pace of change accelerating beyond what most people were comfortable with, daily huddles were essential for exchanging key information.

It was hard to keep up with the “fire hose of emails”—this required a strategic approach to delegating responsibilities, he says. “Don’t get too busy to remember to delegate.”

There are many takeaways from the University of Washington clinical lab’s response to the outbreak. Attendees will get many insights to better prepare for the extended duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice comes from Baird: Buy one of every testing platform you can.