RECAP: DHEC Lab Staff highlighted during Medical Laboratory Professionals Week

Last week, April 18-24 was Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, and Friday, April 23, was World Lab Day. 

Though the Public Health Laboratory (PHL) is the most well-known, DHEC also observed the week by highlighting a couple other of our program areas with lab professionals, Healthcare Quality and Environmental Affairs.

The Public Health Lab

The DHEC Public Health Laboratory has 127 employees and its mission is to provide specialized laboratory testing for accurate screening, diagnosis, prevention and surveillance of disease, foodborne illness, and congenital disorders to improve public health and the quality of life for the South Carolina community.

The entire staff PHL came together as one in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone at PHL from Administration, Logistics, Support, Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), Quality Assurance (QA), and Chemistry worked as a team to enable the Microbiology Division to perform COVID testing seven days a week from March 2020 to February 2021.

Over this time, the PHL team also grew with the addition of 28 COVID temporary staff hired through DHEC and four hourly staff members brought on through temporary staffing agencies.

As of February 2021, PHL completed a total 645,846 COVID-19 tests since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, covering 12% of total COVID-19 testing in South Carolina. The lab supplied a total of 1,055,945 COVID Specimen Collection kits to South Carolina Health Care providers.

Microbiology used its whole genome sequencing to sequence about 461 samples of SARS-CoV-2 becoming the first lab in the U.S. to identify the South African COVID variant (B.1.351). A partnership among CDC, Division of Acute Disease Epidemiology (DADE), and Population Health Data Analytics & Informatics (PHDAI) and PHL was established to investigate any local spread of B.1.351 and other variant strains in South Carolina.

Volunteers from across PHL assembled and packaged test kits to support SC Strong. This work is ongoing for this COVID-19 prevalence study and to date, more than 20,000 kits have been assembled by lab staff with assistance from our partners throughout DHEC.

In addition to the response, the Public Health Lab continued their normal duties, including addressing the opioid epidemic in South Carolina, by developing a bio-surveillance program for fentanyl analog testing in patients who are seen in emergency room departments in the state’s hospitals.

PHL recently received its recertification from the International Standards Organization (ISO). This certification is given for continued excellence in laboratory food testing. It is required to test for United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so that our results can be actionable by the FDA. The Food Section of Microbiology serves as the food testing laboratory for DHEC and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Over the last year, The Public Health Laboratory has demonstrated that it is truly prepared to assist in any national public health emergency through exemplifying all four of the agency’s core values with tireless work and effort.

Healthcare Quality

Healthcare Quality has two medical laboratory professionals, and they both work in the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program. The CLIA Program within DHEC provides federal regulatory oversight of facilities that perform clinical laboratory testing.

“The program is staffed with two very skilled laboratory professionals, Ashley Gibbs and Roshan Benson,” said Lakeisha Wright, Director of the Medical Services Division in the Bureau of Healthcare Systems and Services. “Using their extensive clinical lab experience, they perform inspections of these laboratories to ensure compliance with federal requirements, answer provider questions, and provide regulatory guidance.”

The program is small, but the impact is large. There are:

  • 5,163 CLIA certified labs in SC and overseen by DHEC on state level
  • 190 CLIA lab inspections by DHEC per year on average

Both Roshan and Ashley love their jobs.

“Being a lab professional isn’t for everyone as the profession isn’t often seen or understood, but I love it with all my heart,” Roshan said. “And especially in the time of Covid-19 when labs and testing have been thrust to the forefront, being a member of the CLIA team becomes even more of an honor.”

Ashley agreed.

“I am grateful for the knowledge and the professionalism of the team I work with,” she said. “COVID has hit all areas pretty hard. However, due to COVID, more people are aware of the CLIA program and what we do because the job has been so crucial to the response and progression of navigating through the pandemic.”

Environmental Affairs

In Environmental Affairs, lab professionals play important roles such as:

  • testing the water we drink and swim in;
  • testing our air, soil, fish, dairy, and even some food;
  • conducting monitoring sample analysis and data management;
  • providing validated data meeting quality control requirements for environmental decisions-making to state and federal agencies as well as the public; and
  • certifying public and private environmental laboratories (drinking water and wastewater plants, industries and commercial laboratories, state, and federal laboratories) and milk/dairy laboratories.

Want more information on why we dedicate a whole week of celebration to the people in our labs? See for yourself.

Analytical & Radiological Environmental Services

The Analytical and Radiological Division conducts microbiological and chemical analysis of drinking water, wastewater, streams, lakes, ocean water, soil, fish, leachate, chemical waste, shellfish, milk, and other dairy products.

In 2020, our staff performed 123,470 analyses on 25,133 samples for chemistry and microbiology and 7,905 analyses on 2,103 samples for milk and dairy.

This Division also analyzes samples of drinking water, surface water, air, milk, fish, vegetation, and soils around nuclear facilities throughout the state and maintains a mobile rad lab for radiological emergencies or special investigations.

In 2020, this team performed 14,544 radiological analyses on 2,338 samples.

Air Quality Analysis

The Air Quality Analysis team monitors SC ambient (outdoor) air through a network of 75 monitors at 27 monitoring stations across the state and monitors for particulate concentrations like dust and haze, and gaseous pollutants including ozone.

Annually, this team takes over 370,000 hourly measurements for criteria pollutants and precursors, over 3,600 samples for criteria pollutants, and analyzes more than 25,000 measurements in over 1,200 air toxics samples.

Environmental Laboratory Certification

The Environmental Laboratory Certification section:

  • certifies approximately 516 public and private laboratories in and out-of-state;
  • evaluates in-state labs on at least a three year cycle including on-site visits (143 evaluations in 2020);
  • determines adherence to federally approved methodology, quality control protocols, record keeping, and reporting practices; and
  • provides technical support to certified laboratories and environmental programs on analytical methods and data reporting.

Medical Entomology

The Medical Entomology team:

  • performs vector-borne disease surveillance (mosquitoes, ticks, dead birds, and veterinary animals); trains DHEC staff to collect mosquitoes and ticks;
  • identifies mosquitoes and ticks for pathogen testing; and
  • collaborates with epidemiology staff to investigate human cases

In 2020, the team collected and identified 50,867 mosquitoes, set 972 traps, and trapped in 19 of 46 counties. 

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