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Covid-19 frontline: Unseen and unappreciated work of laboratory staff

Although role of lab technicians often goes unnoticed, accurately diagnosing SARS-CoV-2 is crucial to saving lives

Tufail Ahmad May 11, 2020
KARACHI: Akin to frontline doctors and nurses who have to constantly come in contact with Covid-19 patients, people working in different laboratories are also equally vulnerable to exposure.

Although the work of laboratory staff during the pandemic may go unseen and unappreciated, accurately diagnosing coronavirus is critical for the life of each patient and the global response to Covid-19.

Sunil, a lab technician who works at Advanced Laboratories, told The Express Tribune that he is exposed to coronavirus patients daily as he has to carry out the tests.

“We have to take all necessary biosafety measures before dealing with patients but it still puts us at risk,” Sunil said. “After collecting the nasal swabs of three to four suspected patients, our used personal protective equipment (PPE) and other items are disposed of with utmost safety and handed over to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) authorities to take it to an incinerator.”

Sunil said that the lab technicians have to take double security measures under the current situation and despite the looming fears of contracting the virus, they are diligently performing their duties.

“The collected samples have to go through various complex stages during the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. We then send the report to the concerned pathologist,” he said.

Since lab technicians have to be extra cautious when carrying out Covid-19 tests, the Sindh Healthcare Commission has issued an advisory task force for public and private laboratories.

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Speaking on the matter, the head of the National Institute of Blood Diseases (NIBD) Dr Tahir Shamsi, the chief of Essa Laboratory Dr Farhan Essa, and the president of Infection Control Society of Pakistan Dr Rafiq Khanani said that lab technicians must be very careful when handling samples because the disease is extremely contagious. Therefore, all precautionary guidelines – from using PPEs to handling the samples to disposing them of – must be strictly followed.

When approached, three laboratory experts who have been conducting coronavirus tests regularly since the disease started spreading in Pakistan, said that they are highly likely to contract the virus even after observing all precautions.

“Even though we make sure that each employee of the laboratory is strictly following the precautionary guidelines, during the diagnosis and examination of the affected patients, they often start coughing or sneezing, which has led to the spread of the virus among frontline lab technicians and other paramedical staff, “one of the experts, who chose not to be named, said. “Since we are carrying out an increased number of tests, the chances of transmission have increased. Coronavirus has now become a direct threat to lab technicians,” he said.

Per the Healthcare Commission's advisory, it is important to educate the public and advise them to stay at home as much as possible as it’s the only way to minimise transmission.

“One of the main reasons why doctors and medical staff are infected with the virus is that most corona patients do not have symptoms. When an infected patient goes to the hospital for an examination, doctors and other medical staff unconsciously fall prey to the disease,” the lab expert said.

“Given a large number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan, all laboratory and hospital staff should take extra precautionary measures to safe themselves and also stop the disease from spreading within their homes,” he concluded.