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Central Washington University

State Department of Health Scientists Lean On CWU Training During Pandemic

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

For the past six weeks, four Central Washington University alumni have been assisting in the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) efforts to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anjanette Wilson, Brian Hiatt, Bud Taylor, and Shelley Lankford are playing direct and indirect roles in the state’s fight against the virus, which has infected approximately 10,500 Washingtonians since it was first detected here in early February. All four CWU graduates have been asked to step outside their comfort zones as the DOH works overtime at Public Health Laboratories to repel a common enemy.

Wilson, who was hired last year as a technician in the Office of Environmental Laboratory Sciences, transitioned over to the COVID-19 team in early March when the DOH began ramping up its testing program. She has been preparing test kits for the microbiology team, and “it’s been pretty hectic.”

“I am an ecologist, so switching over to this microbiology position has been pretty invigorating,” the 2019 biology graduate said. “I am very proud of what I’m doing, and that I have the experience needed to help in a situation like this.”

Wilson and her six team members have been preparing between 100-300 testing kits per day for the past month. One day saw 500 kits produced for the microbiology lab, which performs DNA sequencing of test samples to determine if they are positive or negative.

During the time Wilson has been working in the testing lab, she has been supervised by Taylor (’87), who serves as the logistics manager on the incident management team. Hiatt (’00) is the microbiology office director where the main coronavirus response is taking place, and Lankford (’86) is the acting director of the Office of Environmental Laboratory Sciences.

Lankford specializes in shellfish chemistry and oversees biotoxin analysis for all shellfish harvest in the state, plus water-quality testing programs around the state. She has had to make wholesale adjustments in her lab since Wilson and four others on the toxicology team were moved over to the COVID-19 testing site in Shoreline.

“They pulled five of my eight staff members into the COVID team last month, so my small team and I have been covering all of the lab work that those folks were doing,” Lankford said. “We’re down to four people to do the work of nine staff members, so we’ve all had to figure out our new roles. It’s been a humbling experience for me doing all of the tech-level work, but it has made me appreciate my staff even more.” 

During her 32 years with the department, she said she has never seen such an all-encompassing effort, noting that three of the four major lab units at DOH have been impacted by the COVID-19 response. The only unit that hasn’t sent personnel to the emergency testing site is the Office of Newborn Screening, but “they’re also scrambling to support this effort.”

“Usually, just one unit is affected, but this time, everyone is involved,” Lankford said. “We have never done anything on this scope. This has been unprecedented.”

Wilson said she never thought she would be working in the microbiology lab, let alone during a pandemic response. But now that she has been in her new, yet temporary, role for more than a month, she has had time to reflect on what it all means. 

“I was telling my professor, Dr. Kristina Ernest, that I never imagined myself doing something like this — working on the front lines of a pandemic,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of people who want to help, but they don’t know how, and it feels good to know I’m needed for such important work.”

As a lab tech on the COVID-19 team, Wilson’s primary responsibilities are performing reagent prepping and running Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCRs) for DNA extraction. To do this, she and the other technicians pull testing solution into syringes and dispense the liquid into tubes that are combined with samples containing the virus DNA.

The microbiologists then run the test tubes through a machine that produces DNA sequences for each sample, and the samples are then compared to the DNA sequence for COVID-19 to determine if they are positive or negative.

“There are a lot of other steps in between, but that’s basically how it works,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Lankford both said they lean heavily on their CWU training every day at the DOH, and they credit the biology program’s hands-on approach for helping them develop a strong foundation for their careers.

Lankford said some of her required coursework at CWU, such as laboratory management, ended up preparing her well for an emergency acting director role.

“All of my courses have been very helpful to me as a scientist here,” she said. “Everything I did at CWU has come into play, allowing me to change hats and move into different fields. They have been very thoughtful in how they put the (biology) program together.”

Wilson echoed those sentiments, crediting professor Holly Pinkart and others in the department for helping her become a well-rounded scientist able to step in during an emergency like the current virus outbreak.

“CWU completely prepared me to work on this project, and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Wilson said. “Us Wildcats feel really well prepared for these wild times.”

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu.

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