At the COVID war zone: Working in a molecular laboratory

By: Delta Dyrecka Letigio - Reporter/CDN Digital | May 18,2020 - 08:00 AM
The medical technologists working at the molecular laboratory of the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City are at the forefront of the COVID-19 war zone. | Photo Courtesy of John Marc Abarquez

The medical technologists working at the molecular laboratory operated by the Department of Health or the CTRL molecular laboratory in Cebu City. | Photo Courtesy of John Marc Abarquez

CEBU CITY, Philippines — Every medical technologist has been taught to be prepared to face a pandemic. Nobody is actually prepared for it to happen.

This was the statement of 25-year-old John Marc Abarquez, a medical technologist working in the Cebu TB Reference Laboratory  Molecular Facility for COVID-19 Testing (CTRL-MFCT), which is located inside the Department of Health in Central Visayas (DOH-7) grounds in Cebu City that now serves as the war zone for the fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The Department of Health Central Visayas Center for Health Department (DOH CVCHD) operates the molecular laboratory, and the 20 medical personnel manning the facility are under Dr. Jean Loreche, DOH-7 chief pathologist, who leads the CTRL-MFCT.

“A typical day in the molecular lab is unlike any other. This is not a regular laboratory setting where everyone can do away with whatever they want to do,” said Abarquez.

Every sample that arrives in the laboratory can either be two things, it may contain the coronavirus or it may not.

This 50 percent chance of the presence of the virus in every sample puts the 20 personnel at risk of contracting the coronavirus themselves, which is why the molecular laboratory is a Biosafety Level 3, a war zone in the field of medical technology.

Abarquez said that safety was the utmost priority in the molecular lab and everyone on board had to be focused on the task.

A series of protocols are placed in facilities such as this given that we deal with viral strains which are innately contagious in nature,” he said.

“A lot of safety measures are put in place especially engineering controls which are designed to not only keep the personnel safe but also the immediate community within the vicinity, and there is no room for error in the facility,” Abarquez added.

“The slightest deviation from the protocols and rules put in place cannot only compromise the safety of the laboratory but also hamper operations if there is a breach in biosafety,” he said. 

According to the data of the DOH-7, the molecular laboratory tests average samples of 50 to 100 a day. The PCR machines can only load at least 25 samples per cycle.

The increasing number of samples in the molecular laboratory’s inventory has recorded a backlog of up to 800 on May 15, 2020.

Yet this also means that the medical technologists manning the molecular laboratory have more samples on their hands, more than the normal medical technologists usually handle on an ordinary day at the laboratories.

The war against the coronavirus has made soldiers out of them.

The molecular lab can be classified as a high-risk facility, considering that you are dealing with pathogens broken down into the molecular level. Yet despite that, safety protocols, infection mitigation, and biosafety measures are put in place in order to alleviate the risks associated with such,” said Abarquez. 

Changed lives

Abarquez celebrated his 25th birthday on May 16, 2020 with his family in Cebu City. Though he stays with them, he keeps his distance and ensures that they will not contract the virus.

He was used to be assigned in the Lapu-Lapu City Health Office for the last six months prior to the pandemic, and before that at the Subnational Blood Center for the Visayas for a year.

Abarquez graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology from Velez College, one of the leading paramedical educational institutions in Cebu.

When he became a licensed medical technologist in 2015, he did not expect that he would actually face a pandemic.

“We were taught in school, we were prepared to face any kind of outbreak. That is really the at the heart of our education, profession, but nobody is prepared for this kind of pandemic,” he said.

The medical technologists in the molecular laboratory came from different backgrounds and many of them have been uprooted from their past assignments to be at the forefront of the COVID war.

From their former laboratories ranging from biosafety level 1 to 2, the molecular laboratory has increased their risk of contracting the virus over a hundred times.

A PCR machine allows scientists to replicate the virus to a detectable level. A single mistake can potentially endanger workers.

Abarquez said that in an ordinary hospital laboratory, such danger was minimal. The protocol and the machines used in regular processing of samples were equipped with biosafety nets to ensure the safety of the scientist and avoid cross-contamination.

In the molecular laboratory, he said it was like working in a war with the enemies they fight at the microscopic size.

In previous statements, DOH-7 said that all medical technologists working in the molecular laboratories were specifically trained to handle the risk.

Training is the most important aspect of ensuring the safety of clinical scientists working with this relatively new virus taking over the world.

Normal people with normal dreams

They may be soldiers in this COVID war, but medical technologists are also normal people suffering along with the rest of the population with the pandemic.

Abarquez said that at some point he had to work 13 straight days in the laboratory to continue running the tests. Samples simply keep coming from all four provinces in the region.

Just like soldiers on the battlefield, medical technologists sacrifice normal peaceful lives to fight the pandemic.

For his birthday, Abarquez has but one wish, for the pandemic to end. He wishes to go back to normal life in a normal city with his friends and family.

A poet by heart and an adventurer by nature, Abarquez hopes to travel once more in a safer world.

“Our lives now is a war zone, but we should have been the last line of defense. The first line of defense should be the homes. Prevent coronavirus at your doorstep and it can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

He urged the public to follow the protocols set by the government to stop the spread of the virus. He said that staying at home would be the best help any person could do in these trying times.

More than a thousand medical health workers have already contracted the coronavirus in the Philippines and some have died because of it.

The risk is great, but for these modern heroes like Abarquez, they willingly accept this duty to serve their country. The Filipinos’ future relies on them./dbs

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TAGS: coronavirus, COVID, COVID-19, medical technologists, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center, VSMMC, war zone

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