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'The burnout is real': Ontario’s medical labs struggle amid third wave

Last Updated Apr 16, 2021 at 6:06 pm EDT

Rapidly rising ICU admissions and variants of concern are pushing Ontario’s medical labs to their breaking point as the province continues to battle a turbulent COVID-19 third wave.

The head of the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario (MLPAO) says close to 90 per cent of workers reported feelings of burnout at the end of last year. Now, the workload is far greater than ever before in the pandemic. On Friday, there were 695 COVID patients in ICUs according to the Ontario Hospital Association – an all-time high.

“Everybody always associates doctors and nurses to ICU capacity,” said the association’s CEO Michelle Hoad. “One thing we don’t realize is that when a patient goes into ICU, there are many more tests that need to happen in order to monitor how they’re doing, especially because they’re critical. All those tests go into our labs.”

Adding to lab strain are the variants of concern that are driving this third wave.

“That requires increased testing that actually isn’t reflected in the daily test counts,” said Ryan Wybenga, a medical lab technologist and assistant professor at the Michener Institute of Education. “Any time any positives come up – which nowadays is quite a number – they get tested again with a screening test for VOC. If the screening tests are positive, they go on to another test for full genome sequencing.”

The massive workload is on top of the wide array of tests that are processed regularly at medical labs. Technicians play a key role in identifying disease in patient tissue, blood and fluid samples. However, the workforce has not increased significantly over the past year. At the beginning of the pandemic, 70 per cent of labs in Ontario were already understaffed according to the MLPAO. While new graduates along with funding for new equipment to help process results faster has assisted in managing the strain, many lab techs are still working seven days a week to help keep up with demand.

“The burnout is real for sure,” said Wybenga. “It hasn’t gotten any easier. The samples are more than ever.”

The pace will not be slowing any time soon. The province broke another record on Friday reporting 4,812 new COVID-19 cases.

Jessica Bourke manages the microbiology department at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Once our lab reaches 10- to- 15,000 samples a day, we wouldn’t be able to do much more than that,” said Bourke.

What happens when that limit is reached? “We triage. Like ICU we come up with a plan of emergency testing, who to prioritize.”

The MLPAO says looking long-term, targeted funding is needed to address the lab tech shortages in the province. Right now every training program has a wait list of eager students.

As for this third wave, the federal government has sent lab support to Ontario to help ease the burden but Hoad says Ontario’s more than 7,000 lab professionals will also carry on.

“I can’t speak highly enough of this group of people that have worked 24/7 that have just pushed the limits of what they can physically do.”