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Bellingham lab reaches COVID-19 testing milestone, but faces burnout among staff

The Northwest Laboratory in Bellingham recently processed 1 million COVID-19 tests, now the lab is hoping to hire about 100 people to give other employees a break.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — A laboratory in western Washington just hit a major milestone when it comes to testing for the coronavirus, but the experts behind it explain their tireless work comes with a cost.

COVID-19 testing is running 24/7 at the Northwest Laboratory in Bellingham as an out-of-control pandemic surges all around. A map on the wall showed the different states the lab in Bellingham currently serves -- 37, plus Canada and Mexico.

The lab is one of those doing the heavy lifting for coronavirus testing in Washington, and across the country, pumping out 12,000 tests a day.

Just after Thanksgiving they hit a major milestone: 1 million tests processed. The only problem? They wish they could do more.

"It's tough work," said Bri Spencer. "There is a lot of pressure."

Spencer manages the molecular side of Northwest Laboratory. Her team of 400 technicians processes 500 tests an hour with a 24 hour turnaround time.

Keeping to that turnaround time is the top priority, said Spencer. A drive-thru testing site administers a test every two minutes, totaling 250 a day.

Spencer said the hours are long and the work is draining.

"There's not really a light at the end of the tunnel so leaving at the end of your shift and seeing how much there is to still do can be frustrating," said Spencer. "We feel like a hamster on a wheel."

The facility used to be open 9 to 5, processing an array of standard tests, from complete blood counts to biopsies with a focus on women's health.

Since coronavirus hit, it has quadrupled its workforce and turned a 4,000 square foot storeroom into a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing space. And there is no slow down in sight.

"It's a battle every day," said Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Bull.

Dr. Greg Wolgamot said there are four factors that came together to make the site a success.

An empty store room provided the needed space, two PhDs in molecular biology were already on staff, and Western Washington University furloughed some scientific staff and students at the beginning of the pandemic, providing much needed assistance.

"And then there's our staff. Obviously, we couldn't have done any of this without them," said Wolgamot. 

The lab has the capacity to process twice what it's currently doing, but burnout is a concern and they can't afford to lose anyone right now.

How to keep workers motivated?

"We let them know how appreciated they are. They're a great team," said Bull. "We provide food and a place to rest. We even have a taco truck," she joked.

Bull conceded, though, the taco truck only goes so far. The lab needs about 100 more workers to be able to give everyone a bit of a break.

For now, knowing they're making a major difference across this country will have to sustain them.

"We hear stories pretty much every day," said Bull. "Someone was able to go adopt a child because she needed a test. Moms get to hold their babies instead of being separated at birth. It's very rewarding. I think that helps keep the morale up."

"It feels incredible to be part of something that feels a little out of control," added Spencer. "To jump in and know what to do every day and be a part of it is phenomenal."

Workers said they look forward to the day when coronavirus is in the rearview mirror and they can get back to being a 9 to 5 lab, once again. 

Until then, their tireless work will continue.