SCCEA members behind scenes at Test Nebraska

Simply watching the COVID-19 pandemic sweep across Nebraska was not an option for three Southeast Community College instructors, especially when they knew they had the knowledge and training to help solve the problem.

SCC Education Association and NSEA members Lynnett Paneitz, Ahmad Tumeh and Leah Stamps put their medical lab certification to use when Test Nebraska began ramping up COVID-19 testing in April 2020.

Paneitz directs SCC’s Medical Laboratory Technology program. She teaches immunohematology, or blood banking, as well as phlebotomy (drawing blood) and clinical education courses. She is SCCEA president and has been with the college for more than 10 years.

Tumeh is a clinical chemistry instructor and teaches laboratory methods and phlebotomy. He’s been with the college full-time for two years and part-time for another year prior.

Stamps has been at SCC for three years, teaching courses in hematology (blood diseases) and hemostasis (making bleeding stop).

All three are certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

An opportunity to help

The Test Nebraska lab came under the direction of CHI Health Saint Elizabeth hospital in Lincoln last spring. Its director contacted Paneitz, looking for students or lab instructors who might be able to help process COVID-19 tests. Paneitz put out the call, and the three submitted their applications.

Since getting hired at Test Nebraska, they and dozens of others have kept the lab running 24/7 – each working up to 35 hours a week over days, nights and weekends to get test results back to patients quickly.

“It was really nice to be able to give something to what was going on in the pandemic instead of just my opinion,” Paneitz said.

The science behind the tests

The three did not collect samples from patients. Instead, they were behind the scenes at CHI Health Saint Elizabeth, processing the tests and analyzing the results using a process called PCR: polymerase chain reaction.

“It takes a little piece of DNA and it multiplies it so that it can be detectable,” Stamps said.

The samples go into a centrifuge, where the spinning separates and amplifies the DNA. A fluorescent reaction then shows what they’re looking for.

“It’s not like we’re just looking for a virus. We’re looking for a specific piece of DNA,” she said.

The test yields a number, and that number indicates a positive or negative test.

The PCR process is different from a rapid test, which looks for the antigen, or a protein from the virus, instead of the person’s DNA. If a rapid test comes back positive, a more sensitive PCR test can confirm the result.

The PCR samples are processed 92 at a time, and the lab can get through about 15 cycles in a shift.

“It was kind of a slow start and then we hit this mega peak,” Paneitz said. “In a 24-hour period we were doing 4,000-7,000 patients.”

Staying relevant

Their families have been supportive of the extra shifts they’ve taken on at Test Nebraska in addition to working their regular hours at SCC. The days can get long, but the tests still need to be processed.

“I’ve been here (at SCC) since 8 o’clock, and then once I leave here, I go to Saint E’s,” Stamps said. “I’ll be there until 9:30 in the evening, so it’s a full day. Then, I wake up and I go back to work tomorrow.”

For Stamps, knowing she’s contributing in a positive way during a time of global uncertainty makes it worth it.

“It’s nice to say, ‘hey, during this time years ago, I helped out.’ It’s just us doing a little piece of something for the community,” she said.

The three agreed COVID-19 has spotlighted the medical lab industry.

“Everyone was talking about, ‘Where’s the test? Where’s the test for COVID?’ Then finally it gets developed, but we need someone to run those tests,” Tumeh said. “That’s where it comes down to how much we need lab techs. The best thing you could do for the community was to help produce accurate results.”

“It’s also nice for students to see their teachers giving back, but also out there working in the field,” Paneitz said. “It keeps us relevant.”

The trio said it was good to know Nebraskans’ tests were being processed in Nebraska by local people at a local lab.

“It was a good opportunity to put our little mark on what has generally been a pretty terrible time,” Tumeh said.