‘No person Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Employees Pressure Underneath Demand


For some, the tidal wave of stress caused by the pandemic has proven unsustainable. Since March, scientists have left the labs, leaving expertise in an area where it has been difficult to recruit new talent for years.

Joanne Bartkus, the former director of the Minnesota Department of Public Health Laboratory, resigned from her position in May after a dozen years in office. It put one of the pivotal turning points in the pandemic on March 6, the day President Trump publicly noted that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.”

“That was when the poop hit the fan,” said Dr. Beard kiss. Within about a week, her team received fewer than a dozen coronavirus test samples per day and was inundated with about 1,000 daily samples.

It was unlike anything Dr. Bartkus had seen in her years at the institution. In 2009, the year of the H1N1 flu pandemic, the Minnesota Public Health Laboratory tested approximately 6,000 patient samples. This spring it broke that record in a couple of weeks.

The 65-year-old Dr. Bartkus had already planned to retire before the end of the year. By the time April came, she had accelerated her timeline to May: “It wasn’t long before I said, ‘OK, I’m done with this. ‘“

In interviews, several scientists found they were struggling to fill vacancies in their laboratories, some of which were left open by overwhelmed technologists who recently quit their jobs. While the need for such workers has increased in recent years, the number of training programs that build these skills has decreased.

“Medical technicians are a dying breed,” said Ms. Stoeppler of the University of North Carolina.

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