Labs squeezed for staff to meet COVID-19 testing demand

Augusta University Medical Center in Georgia has given salary increases to lab workers and brought in contract lab scientists to help ease the demand for COVID-19 testing, but the hospital said it still doesn't have the staff to sustain the current testing demand, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Many of the 23 technologists working on COVID-19 testing in the hospital's lab work overtime running tests and getting supplies, trying to keep test turnaround times low, and some workers have even delayed retirement, the Journal reports. 

The increased demand for COVID-19 tests is exacerbating long-standing staffing shortages at labs around the country, the Journal reports. 

"You might be able to do it for a few weeks or days, but now we’re going into months and months, and there’s no end in sight," Brandy Gunsolus, doctor of clinical laboratory science at Augusta University Medical Center told the Journal. "We do not have the staff to sustain it."

There are about 337,000 clinical laboratory technologists and technicians working in hospitals, public health and commercial labs in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2018, the American Society for Clinical Pathology reported an average vacancy rate in U.S. medical labs of 8.6 percent, up from 7.2 percent the year before, according to the Journal

Labor shortages in testing labs have existed for years due to factors including low recruitment, an aging workforce and relatively low pay for lab technicians and technologists compared to that of other healthcare workers with similar education requirements. In 2019, the median annual salary for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians was $53,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The skills required for lab workers also are often specialized and not easily transferred from other fields. 

In August, 58 percent of labs said staffing was an issue, up from 35 percent in May, according to a survey from the American Association for Clinical Chemistry cited by the Journal

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