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As COVID testing rates rise, lab scientists feel the crunch

Lab techs in Colorado say the pressure has been slowly mounting to keep up with the need as the COVID-19 pandemic moves along.

DENVER — When she returns home at the end of the workday, Amy Faliano Hamill says she has trouble working up the energy to make dinner.

“I just feel like I am in between either working really hard or trying to get as much rest as possible so I can come in and work just as hard the next day,” Hamill, a scientist who works in the lab at UCHealth Highlands Ranch hospital. “And I’m sure everyone in healthcare is feeling that.”

Faliano said the pressure has been slowly mounting as the pandemic moves along. Her lab processes COVID-19 tests from the hospital and nearby testing sites. She’s also still responsible for the other tests doctors and nurses order for patients inside the hospital. Between COVID and all other lab tests, her lab in Highlands Ranch processes about 1,000 tests a day during the pandemic.

“For a while, it kind of felt like this panic,” she said. “Every day I came in and I was like ‘oh my gosh…okay. We can do this. And I kind of pep-talked myself and said just keep your focus on and you can get through the day. And it’s almost like that panic has become a constant that I almost don’t feel it anymore.”

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Hamill says anyone who feels the pandemic isn’t real ought to look at the results she handles each day.

“It’s not just the COVID results that make it real… it’s the other lab values I think and the conditions of the patient,” she said. “Their hematology smears look like someone who’s really ill. Their respiratory values that we get on their blood chemistry are scary… the way this is impacting your whole body is really scary.”

That constant churn of new tests and test results means Faliano literally experiences the pandemic each day, which can be overwhelming.

“I feel it after work because I’m exhausted and I don’t have the energy to do the things I used to do after work,” she said. “The balancing act is hard. It’s hard to find the energy to do more after you give it your all every single day at work.”

To the east in Parker, Aaron Squires, who manages the lab at Sky Ridge Medical Center, works hard to ensure his lab technicians get what they need.

“I think it’s important during this pandemic that we take care of ourselves and we take care of each other,” Squires said. “We really emphasize did you take your breaks? Do you need a break? Do you need a day off?”

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Squires, who fills in in the lab when his employees need a break, said he understands the work ethic.

“It can be easy to go 10 hours and think, oh, I didn’t eat anything today,” he said.

Squires said he works hard to exercise and eat right while off the clock to keep himself fresh.

Both Hamill and Squires say they feel support from the community as many frontline healthcare workers do.

Hamill, though, said she sometimes takes criticism of testing in the media and elsewhere personally.

“We’re doing the best we can even though I think sometimes it’s seen as not good enough or we should be doing more,” she said. “It’s always that we can be doing more. And we 100 percent wish we could be doing more too. We’re doing everything we can with the resources and reagents we have.”

Labs in Colorado processed 35,488 COVID-19 tests on Monday, according to state data. Also as of Monday, the state has processed more than 3.5 million total tests since the beginning of the pandemic.

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