Albany lab tech sheds light on truths, controversies surrounding virus testing

Golec developing COVID-19 assays at Albany Medical Center
Michael Golec, a medical technologist at Albany Medical Center, works inside the hospital’s molecular diagnostics lab.
Michael Golec, a medical technologist at Albany Medical Center, works inside the hospital’s molecular diagnostics lab.

ALBANY — COVID-19 testing has been in the headlines for weeks; most of the time the stories are about how there isn’t nearly enough of it.

Michael Golec is all too familiar with the issue. As a medical technologist in the molecular diagnostics lab at Albany Medical Center, he’s been developing COVID-19 assays for weeks, bringing in new tests and ensuring that each is as accurate as possible.

Golec is a New Hampshire native who first came to the area to attend Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Now an Albany resident, he has worked at Albany Medical Center for the past six years, in the hematology lab and most recently in the molecular diagnostics lab.


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He spoke with The Gazette earlier this month about the challenges of increasing testing and about the misconceptions surrounding the tests.

Q: How has your job changed with COVID-19?

A: Prior to COVID, this lab in particular, we’re usually on the forefront of new testing that we can bring in. We’re constantly developing new assays, and bringing on new manufacturers and new testing made by these companies. Since COVID started, we’ve been obviously focusing a lot more on that testing. We’ve also been spending a lot of time doing development on all these different assays that are being released so that we can use them for clinical purposes.

Q: What COVID-19 testing have you been developing?

A: The very first one that we brought in, we started the second week of March optimizing it for use in our lab. That was the assay that the CDC developed. They supplied us with some of their reagents, which are the chemicals that we use specifically for our testing, and then we had to use a lot of the equipment that we already had in our lab to optimize the ingredients that they gave us.

Then, the next test that we brought in was for Abbott. They had a protocol that they developed for the M2000 [instrument] that we used.

By that time, we already had a baseline of some positive patients that we had seen in our hospital so that we could use those specimens in order to validate this new assay that we were bringing in, which basically means we run known positive patients, known negative patients in order to verify that the protocol that they’ve given us works in our setting.

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That was about a week after we got the CDC’s assay, and then last week we brought on a third assay, which is done by BD (Becton Dickinson). It took about a week validation on that and then we have that up and running now.

We’re in the process of bringing on a fourth method of testing, just because we’ve found that there’s such a demand for all of these reagents that at any one time we could potentially face a shortage. So we’ve done our due diligence in trying to stockpile as much as we can responsibly so that we’re not impacting other facilities’ ability to perform testing. Obviously that redundancy is pretty important, just in case we do face shortages in one assay then we can focus our testing more on the other ones.

Q: So you essentially have four different methods of testing?

A: Yes. There are two or three of us that have been dedicated to developing all the oncoming testing that we’re bringing in, as well as keeping up with the testing that the hospital is doing on patients.

Q: Are all these tests being administered the same way to patients?

A: Test collection is the same throughout all of the testing that we do. It’s just the methods that we’re using on our end that are different.

Q: What was different in the methodology between the first and second tests?

A: A lot of the stuff that we’re reading or that the media is saying, they’re using the term “test kits.” I don’t think it’s the best nomenclature. … When people hear “test kit,” they think of something like a pregnancy test where it’s all included. The analogy I’ve been using is it’s almost like a Lunchable, so you buy that, you have your cheese and crackers and you’re good to go. Everything’s in that one package.

But the CDC assay [is] closer to someone handing you a bag of groceries and asking you to cook a meal. So you have all of the raw ingredients that you need, but you still need your knives, your technical skills in order to [cook it]. The CDC assay is basically the bare minimum, their specific reagents that apply specifically to that assay. Then what we have to do is we have several instruments that we’re using, that we already had in order to craft the test based off of their guidelines, and then what the Wadsworth Center was using for their testing.

Q: Since this started, how many tests do you think you’ve run?

A: We’ve been doing this for about a month now and we’ve been averaging 50 to 60 tests per day, which ideally we could be doing more but as of right now, based off of the guidelines of patient requirements to be tested, that’s about where we’re at.

Q: Along the way, have there been some rewarding moments?

A: It’s definitely exciting to be on the forefront of this test development. Anytime you’re able to bring on new testing, it definitely feels like a personal accomplishment as far as the lab is concerned.

Because we’re one of the only facilities in the area that’s actually doing the testing and that has the capabilities of doing the testing at this point, we’re getting a lot of specimens from other hospitals and other health systems in the area.

So it’s rewarding when you have people from other hospitals that are acknowledging the work that you’re doing to help other patients out as well. We put all this hard work into developing all these assays and optimizing them for our use, and then it’s nice when we can hear the feedback from the staff that’s ordering the testing.

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Q: Do you feel like there are misconceptions about the virus?

A: I think there’s a disconnect between what exactly a test kit means. So even prior to all this, we were fortunate enough to be one of the more sophisticated molecular diagnostic labs in the Capital Region, so we had the benefit of having the instrumentation that we already needed for these tests that are being developed. Whereas some of the other facilities in the area either have less of that instrumentation or none at all.

It’s a little bit different now that so many companies are getting their hat in the ring as far as testing. They’re trying to make it a little more accessible for a lot of different facilities, but especially when the very first assay came out [from] the CDC, you need specialized equipment that a lot of labs didn’t have.

So I feel as though there was a lot of outrage right at the beginning that we weren’t testing enough. But it’s not like you could just give those reagents to any lab and be able to produce results with them. It’s not like whatever testing they were giving us was just ready for a patient specimen and someone to run the test. There’s a lot of extra work that went into it that wasn’t necessarily recognized by a lot of people.

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