With COVID-19 lockdowns either starting to be lifted or already lifted in many states, labs that were shut down are getting back to work. While staff have done what they can from home, what about the equipment they left behind? And, with the looming threat of subsequent waves of infection and possible further shutdowns, what can labs do to ensure their equipment remains at its best?
We recently chatted with Matt Mincer, founder of lab service company Tech One Biomedical, about things labs can do to ensure their equipment is protected in the event of a shutdown or slowdown. Tech One Biomedical repairs and services equipment for 600 histopathology lab clients across the US.
Q: What are some of the issues your clients are experiencing due to equipment sitting idle?
A: In tissue processors, things like air valves will get stuck from sitting too long, especially on older machines that have not had recent maintenance. Also, alcohol could absorb a lot of water from the environment, so it's important to change your reagents. With cryostats, debris, chucks, and other things that shouldn't be left in there can get frozen, even though the cryostat may be defrosted.
Q: What are some of the worst case scenarios that could happen with equipment?
A: Anything can happen. Computers and compressors can fry out if you turn them off before leaving the lab. Restarting this stuff can be stressful on electronics. Backup batteries that may have been weak to start with could have died and can lead to you losing all of your program settings.
Q: What types of equipment are most likely to develop issues?
- Tissue processors are most likely to have issues from sitting idle. A common problem is valves getting sticky.
- With cryostats, stuff freezes when they are left idle.
- Microtomes can experience issues largely because they have moving parts and use grease to stay lubricated. And, of course, when you're not lubricating these machines, you can get problems.
Q: How can labs prevent these problems?
- Every lab should have a service checklist with a corresponding calendar, as required by the College of American Pathologists.
- Maintain your equipment even more often than what's mandated.
- Call your local service provider to ensure regular maintenance is performed and to address small things before they become large things.
Q: For those still locked out of their labs, what are some steps they can take to make sure their equipment is looked after?
A: There's not much you can do if you can't look at your equipment. Folks need to be in front of machines to see if they're working or not. It's worth calling your local service provider to get them to run diagnostics, and to perform maintenance and repairs if needed.
Q: For those just beginning to reopen their labs, what are some of the most important steps they should take regarding equipment maintenance once they get back into the lab?
- Fire up all of the equipment.
- Look for any diagnostic codes and issues.
- Follow your checklist for what maintenance should be done to each piece of equipment.
- Conduct some dummy runs on non-critical samples. See if anything "looks or smells" funny.
- Make repairs and adjustments accordingly.
Q: With the pandemic likely still far from over and the possibility that we could see future shutdowns due to a second or even third wave of infections, what can labs do now to prepare?
A: They should go through all of their equipment. Prepare each piece for non-use. Don't turn everything off. Follow the protocols.
Q: Was there anything else you wanted to add?
A: Yes! Read the manual, even though I never do! But, there's a reason they call me the "machine whisperer." OK, they don't really call me that.
Matt Mincer founded Tech One Biomedical in 1997 and has served as the company's president ever since. Besides leading Tech One and its more than 25 employees, he invents new histology technology, develops and executes Tech One's growth plans, still maintains his own service clients, and performs field repairs nearly every week. He also trains new techs and often cooks complete meals for his employees in the office's kitchen.
Tips from the Lab
Lab Snapshot: Impact of COVID-19 on Pathology Lab Solutions
Rod Glose, CEO/owner of Pathology Lab Solutions in Conshohocken, PA, says that from March to April, his lab saw a 95 percent reduction in specimens. However, once May arrived and clients started reopening, the company reached 50 percent of its usual specimen volume by the end of that month and were back to 85 percent volume at the time of writing in June.
However, they have avoided any equipment issues by being extra vigilant, Glose says.
“As far as our equipment, because we maintained all staff just with a reduction of their hours, staff took advantage of this time to perform much more thorough cleaning and maintenance procedures,” Glose says, adding that they did have an annual preventive maintenance service scheduled that has been pushed back two months.
For Glose and his staff, following the recommended safety procedures such as keeping enough distance between employees and wearing masks has been the biggest challenge but strong communication has been the key to managing many of the issues they’ve faced.
“Communication really helps to reduce concerns [and] fears,” he says, adding that being flexible and having backup plans have also been important for running the lab effectively.
He adds the situation has also made his team stronger.
“I believe this crisis helped us build a more cohesive team,” Glose says. “We will be looking at protocols in a different light, as far as how they impact our employees and their families.”
Lab Snapshot: Impact of COVID-19 on Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Histology Lab
Sunilda (Sunny) Valladares-Silva, histology lab manager in Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Department of Pathology & Cell Biology, has faced a similar situation with a decreased workload due to fewer patient visits and elective surgeries at the hospital. Though salaries were maintained, employees’ hours were staggered to allow for proper social distancing. And, teams were created so that staff could still be kept in a group while alternating days off.
“We had to change the configuration of the workplace and expand our footprint, including relocation of staff and equipment to promote social distancing,” Valladares-Silva adds. Like Glose’s lab, annual preventive maintenance for equipment was put on hold, but they also avoided major equipment issues. Though one piece of equipment malfunctioned, because they have two similar units, the lab was able “to continue to function without disrupting the turnaround,” Valladares-Silva says.
A temporary shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) was a key challenge the team faced, but the center’s ColumbiaDoctors organization helped facilitate PPE donations and ensured that equipment got to clinical areas.
Communication has also been critical for Valladares-Silva’s team in getting through the challenges posed by the pandemic in New York. They worked hard to stay current on the latest safety recommendations and laboratory practices and passing that information on to the team.
“More than ever, it was and is important to listen to staff, acknowledge fears and concerns, and work together to address both personal and work-related matters,” Valladares-Silva says.
Going forward, Valladares-Silva plans to continue to ensure that employees’ hours are scheduled in such a way that all areas of the lab are covered while still maintaining social distancing. Some staff will work remotely, when possible.
“Regardless of the new norm, laboratories will always face challenges,” Valladares-Silva says. “You need to maintain an open mind and anticipate changes. If the plan of action works, you move forward. If it doesn’t work, then you have to come up with another plan of action. Always communicate with your staff. Since they are the ones acting on the changes. They may also come up with a better plan of action. Their input is very important.”