LANSING, Mich. – While almost 750 Michigan National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continue to distribute food, manage supplies and support alternate care facilities to fight COVID-19, two specially trained Guard members are assisting the state's Bureau of Laboratories.
In a typical flu season, the lab tests 1,000 flu specimens, said Dr. Diana Riner, a virology and immunology section manager for the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories. Since the COVID outbreak, she added, that number has increased significantly.
"From the start of February to where we are in April, we have tested more than 10,000 specimens for COVID-19," said Riner, whose lab falls under the state's Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). "We went from working five days a week with one shift to seven days a week with two shifts."
A call went out to find professionals with the required certifications, education, training and experience to work in the highly technical public health clinical lab. In stepped two members of the Michigan Guard's 51st Civil Support Team.
"It does help offset some of their workload," said Capt. Nicholas Buck, the 51st CST's medical operations officer and medical section leader. "It helps provide them a little bit of relief."
Buck, who earned a bachelor's degree in premedical preparation with minors in chemistry and military science from Ball State University, had the right stuff.
"Having the CST background and training really was very beneficial," he said. "We train on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) response, and this really fits well into our response capability."
Testing a single specimen for COVID-19 may sound simple, but according to Buck, it isn't.
"One manual extraction of 12 clinical samples can take up to two hours," he said. "After it's extracted, the samples will get moved over to where they can be worked on real-time PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)."
"There are certain primers and probes that will match up the specific RNA code that would be for COVID-19," Buck said. "If it's amplified through that PCR process, it would be a positive result."
The testing phase can be exhausting, he said.
Manual extractions are very physically demanding," said Buck. "With repetitive motions for 6 to 8 hours continuously, you can feel the tenseness in your neck and back."
The National Guard's assistance is just what the doctor ordered.
"All of our staff is working mandatory overtime right now," Riner said. "We're getting extra specimens processed because we have that extra set of hands. It's nice to help us split the workload."
Others welcomed the relationship between the Guard and the lab.
"Evolution of this new relationship between Guard members and MDHHS lab is so unique and unprecedented," said Dr. Sandip Shah, director, state public health laboratory, Bureau of Laboratories, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "It is not only admirable and mutually beneficial but also serves as an example for other state laboratories in the nation when dealing with such a crisis."
The work also benefits the Guard members.
"I am very proud to be part of what we are doing," said Buck. "It is an honor to not only provide help to the lab but realize decisions are being made on our results that positively impact the public."