Industry Voices—What crucial challenges will labs face during the next phase of COVID-19 testing over the coming months?

healthcare worker in protective gear prepares to test a driver in a car at a drive-through COVID testing site
CVS Health has been a major source of COVID-19 testing for individuals around the country. The testing industry has been strained during the pandemic, and there are certain steps labs should take amid ongoing and growing demand. (CVS Health)

Predicting the future can be considered a fool’s errand.

While that’s true in some areas of healthcare, given our experience with the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, I don’t think it has ever been easier. While it’s exciting that a vaccine is finally around the corner, there is still much testing to be done.  

As a wise man once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it." I recommend we address the things that need fixing and create the future and the outcomes we want for laboratories across the country.

The vaccine is not a solution to the testing problem

Since the mainstream public will not have vaccine access until the first-line demographic has received it, lab testing will still be impacted. Additionally, millions of people who decline it over safety concerns will cause demand for testing to skyrocket even more in 2021.

RELATED: Lack of antigen test reporting leaves country 'blind to the pandemic'

Clinical lab leaders predict that wider vaccine availability will cause a significant increase in antibody testing plus a need for rapid COVID-19 molecular tests, which won’t be available in sufficient quantities until late 2021. To prepare, labs should seek solutions that help streamline processing, because currently, most systems are not scalable enough to process thousands of tests per day.

Many tests will cause further confusion

Multiple test choices for labs and medical practices (molecular, antigen) can overwhelm the public as they determine what’s best for cost, efficiency and effectiveness. Despite the introduction of antigen and other rapid tests, PCR tests will still remain the preferred choice among labs, employers, hospitals and government facilities—the consensus being that they provide the highest level of efficacy.

At-home and mobile PCR tests won’t negatively impact testing volumes at lab facilities because the most significant need for testing exists at the enterprise-level to hasten the return to work. With businesses coming back online, employer testing will serve as the largest incoming business for labs and its main source of revenue, versus individual testing.

Workforce shortage can be solved

Pre-pandemic, the industry was experiencing a clinical laboratory workforce shortage. For labs that haven’t already invested in automated solutions, operations will be negatively impacted further in 2021. The solution is automation: Less staff doing three times the volume of work is the only way around this problem.

RELATED: United Airlines teams up with Color to make COVID-19 tests available to passengers

Travel and live events will drive demand

Travel will require rapid testing in 2021, creating lag times as not all labs are able to process tests to meet demand, likely raising prices. Additionally, live events will require mobile labs to be present for on-site PCR testing to grant admission. Large-scale venues and convention centers should be prepared for this using lab technology solutions that provide results tracking for management, attendees and guests.

Technology is key

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the highest priority changes needed in the lab testing industry in 2021 will continue to be automation, technology that enables rapid test results and systems that allow efficient electronic tracking and management of healthcare information.

Jaswant S. Tony founded GoMeyra, a comprehensive and fully customizable cloud-based laboratory information management solutions.