AUSTIN (KXAN) — While health leaders are keeping eye on a new COVID-19 variant, many medical laboratories are struggling to keep up with the pandemic, already.

The American Clinical Laboratory Association reports COVID-19 infections have increased laboratory staff sick leave. That’s on top of record numbers of clinical laboratory professionals retiring or choosing to leave the profession, according to another lab group, The American Association for Clinical Chemistry.

It’s another staffing shortage in the health care industry that could have lasting impacts.

“It’s unbelievable, quite frankly,” said Wendy Garner, Point of Care Health Services CEO.

Garner started her mobile testing site about 18 months ago and has been looking for more staff ever since. She’s got about six full-time employees who conduct and analyze tests for COVID-19, flu, strep and RSV.

“I can’t say that we’ve ever been fully staffed the way that we would hope to be in order to meet the demand,” she said.

The staffing shortage delayed their turnaround time during the post-holiday COVID testing rush.

“We have the ability to communicate results as quickly as two or three minutes if there’s a positive case, and then maybe 15 minutes to 20 minutes if there’s a negative case, but we just have to have enough staff to run all the tests and analyze them. So it was frustrating for us,” Garner said.

Rodney Rohde, chair of Texas State University’s clinical laboratory science program, said labs across the country need more workers.

“Some are stepping out — one, to early retirements, two to their — they’re just taking a break from the field, because they’re just worn out,” said Rohde, who recently published an article about the issue.

Rohde said this is a problem not just for labs that process COVID tests, but hospitals that process cancer diagnoses, blood tests and normal check-ups.

“That spans everything from your cancer diagnosis to your blood transfusion,” Rohde explained. “To… your normal checkups for your liver and your cholesterol profiles, or perhaps for an infection to decide which antibiotic is best used by a physician.”

The CDC reports health care workers order 14 billion lab tests each year to help doctors make about 70% of medical decisions.

Though he could not say which facilities, Rohde said some hospitals are already starting to change practices due to the shortage among laboratory staff.

“They just don’t have the capability to run those types of things, and they have to pick the most important thing. So, triaging of laboratory patient testing is absolutely on the table,” he said.

KXAN reached out to our local major health care systems — Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White, and St. David’s — to see what their medical laboratory staffing looks like, but none have gotten back to us yet.

The future of medical lab workers

Rohde said not only has the pandemic made medical lab staffing worse, but it’s affecting the pipeline of future workers, too.

He said his department at Texas State works with more than 50 clinical laboratories in the region to help place and train his students.

“Remember, these hospitals are under immense strain right now. So, sometimes they’ll just say, ‘Look in the month of February, we’re out. We’ve had staffing issues,'” he said.

He said the number of labs has also shrunk over the years.

“Many systems have consolidated. So, for example, if they have five hospitals in the region in Austin… There may be only one now that has a full array of microbiology and blood bank and other areas,” he explained.

He said that started happening even before the pandemic, for economic or other reasons. Other reasons behind the shortage that also stem from pre-pandemic years include lack of awareness about the career path.

“We’re not frontline health care workers, like nurses and physicians. So you know, high school kids and junior high kids don’t always know about this major until they cross paths with it,” he said.

Rohde also said pay is an issue, like many other industries.

“The median salary for a kind of typical medical laboratory professional in the middle of their careers is about 54,000 a year, whereas nursing pushes more like $75,000. And we have the same types of training, the same types of education, the same types of rigor in life-saving ability,” he said.

That is starting to change with the pandemic, as some companies offer major signing bonuses. But it’s still not enough to fill the gap, Rohde said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs for Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians are expected to grow 11% by 2030. That’s faster than the average of all other professions, which is 8%.

“All of us have our issues, but nothing moves without the foundational medical laboratory tests,” he said. “You can’t do anything without testing.”