By Giselle Kowalski
As the pandemic surges on, the public’s grasp on who to listen to when it comes to COVID19 [SARSCoV2 virus] procedures and scientifically accurate information wavers between absolute confidence and complete distrust in public health professionals.
According to The New York Times, around 23,000 new cases are reported in Texas per week. Since Gov. Greg Abbott’s order in May to prohibit government mask mandates, universities across the state have struggled to contain cases throughout their campuses.
Before the school year began, President Trauth sent out an email urging students to continue to wear a mask in buildings and on campus to minimize infection rate. However, as students pass from class to class across the Quad, the masks come off in the sweltering heat.
“There has been a hodgepodge of things happening over the last 18 months,” says Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, Chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) Program at Texas State and Associate Director of the Translational Health Research Center. “As medical laboratory and public health professionals, we weren’t involved enough, we didn’t have enough people in the right place. We didn’t have people in the highest levels of government who understood medical laboratory testing.”
Dr. Rohde is a credentialed specialist in virology, microbiology and molecular diagnostics with the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) in medical (clinical) laboratory testing. In other words, he is an expert in viruses and how they work. Additionally, whenever someone is taking a specimen (e.g. blood, urine, saliva samples), performing a COVID19 test or the like, laboratory professionals like Rohde are the people that test and validate the results.
In a recent article by The Conversation, data shows that there are only around 300,000 medical laboratory professionals practicing in the United States, with a population reaching above 330 million in the country. To make matters more pressing, these professionals are starting to retire early, especially since the onslaught of the pandemic. Over worked and understaffed, many health professionals across the U.S. are struggling to continue under an ongoing and stressful few years.
Programs across the country like the Texas State CLS one are educating and training students to walk in the footsteps of those like Dr. Rohde and his colleagues in order to put more willing, able, and smart individuals in laboratories to continue to research and explore this novel virus and any others that may evolve in the future. In order to prepare more students for a career in the CLS program, there’s a need to raise awareness of programs like this one and others that can improve public health literacy.
A good example of a need for health literacy is the complex nuance of COVID19 testing. Take-at-home COVID tests are a convenient and readily available option for those that can afford a $23.99 testing kit at Walgreens. There is no need to make an appointment, take time off or wait for results and it is a great option for those that have school-aged kids that are not able to vaccinate. These at home tests can help a family with the decision whether to keep a child at home if they’re sick and possible prevent spreading COVID19 to Johnny’s 2nd grade class, and his grandparents, and his neighbors, and his teacher. On the other hand, the validity of the result is questionable to many virologists and public health officials. With variables like human error (sampling), false positives and negatives, one must be careful to put full trust in such testing.
“People think that ‘a test is a test is a test is a test,” said Dr. Rohde. “And that is absolutely not the case.”
While at-home testing is a great opportunity, it is usually what is referred to as “waived testing.” In other words, anyone can do it and get a result, like a pregnancy test, and waived tests are FDA approved. However, tests done in medical laboratories are moderate to high complexity, the gold standard, with more specificity and sensitivity to get an accurate result.
“The at home testing has a purpose” Rohde said. “At-home testing and other rapid tests are often what we call a ‘screening test,’ throwing a wide net and trying to find sporadic positives that may need to be confirmed. You should still go to your physician who can help ensure that the proper sample is taken and that a medical laboratory can work to get a really strong, high complexity test to follow that up.” At-home testing can be a double-edged sword in the medical world, but it is opening up a whole new realm for people to take symptoms more seriously and to prioritize their own health and the safety of others. Rapid antigen testing definitely has a place but one must understand the nuances of these types of tests. Medical laboratory professionals are the ones who can provide that type of understanding for the 13 billion laboratory tests performed each year that provide critical life-saving information for physicians and others to make approximately two out of three medical decisions.
While the pandemic has seemed to become a political problem rather than a public health issue, there is wide agreement in the medical community to the benefit of information being published for all to read.
“I feel like with coronavirus people know a lot more than they did before,” said senior biology major Sierra San Roman. “Now so many regular people know how the vaccine works compared to before.”
There is still a lot to be done and more information to be gathered. Trust is earned, and lately, trust has eroded. According to a recent Gallup survey, American’s confidence in the medical system has dropped by 7% in 2021 versus in 2020.
The goal of people like Dr. Rohde and students in the Clinical Laboratory Science Program is to be up front about what specialists know and what they don’t. With a virus that is constantly changing and mutating, Dr. Rohde says, communication and transparency should be the priority.