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Medical lab workers ensure readiness and wellness behind the scenes

Image of woman in lab coat looking at samples in test tubes Senior Airman Brittany Campbell prepares urinalysis samples for testing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

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Medical laboratory professionals usually work behind the scenes, performing vital duties to ensure the health and readiness of the force. But they come front and center this week, as National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week shines a spotlight on their work and this year’s Fellowship of the Lab theme.

Across the Military Health System, medical lab professionals are involved in every aspect of health care. As the MHS devotes resources to support the COVID-19 pandemic response, lab workers are analyzing tests that detect the contagious respiratory virus.

"We're fortunate to be a vital piece to the COVID-19 pandemic response by standing up in-house testing," said Air Force Lt. Michael Moeun, chief of microbiology at David Grant USAF Medical Center laboratory at Travis Air Force Base, California. The David Grant lab supports Air Mobility Command and the Pacific Theater.

"We could not be more proud to support Team Travis and our patients," Moeun said.

Since the first reports of the new virus Dec. 31, approximately 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 have occurred globally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Department of Defense is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. State Department to provide support in dealing with the outbreak.

MHS laboratory capabilities are synchronized through the Center for Laboratory Medicine Services and the Executive Secretariat, DoD Laboratory Network. Currently, COVID-19 testing is being performed at 68 Army, Navy, and Air Force facilities across the DoD.

As the virus has spread, so have testing capabilities. For example, the Army initially had nine medical centers with a large testing capacity. That's since expanded to 35 installations to provide testing locally, said Army Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, the Army surgeon general.

Medical lab professionals are also investigating different diagnostic capabilities, Dingle said. And they're working on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 testing is just the latest capability of MHS laboratory professionals. At Naval Medical Center San Diego, the laboratory staff of 260 performs and analyzes about 4 million medical tests annually, said Teresita Crisostomo, the lab quality assurance supervisor.

"Working in the lab every day is a surprise and unpredictable," Moeun said. "You never know what you will encounter, or how you can help a patient's treatment."

"We are behind the scenes in a patient’s care, performing hundreds of different tests," added Capt. Crystal Davis, chief of the core laboratory. "We never underestimate how important our role is, and truly believe it's the best job ever."

Added Senior Airman Jadon Smith, a core laboratory technician: "Doctors rely on us for results. We are critical to the care of a patient."

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