TAMPA, Fla. — Laboratory scientists never see the faces of patients in the hospital. They are stuck in a room surrounded by four walls and endless specimens ready to be analyzed.
But, they know how sick patients are before anyone else, and for lab techs at AdventHealth Tampa, what they are seeing is heartbreaking and terrifying.
Not since the pandemic started in 2020 have lab techs seen a surge in COVID-19 cases this high.
"With this latest surge, it's just been off the chart. You know volume has increased significantly," Medical Laboratory Scientist at AdventHealth Tampa Kelly Clemens said.
Clemens doesn't just see if someone tests positive for the coronavirus. The lab results paint a grim picture of patients sometimes a few floors below her, in the fight of their lives.
"I really never have gone through anything like this before in my career in the lab," Clemens said. "What I see is all the patient results, and these people are very, very sick. I've never seen numbers like this before numbers so high you know they are sick I don't see them physically, but I see their results."
The reference to the extremely high numbers isn't for positive COVID-19 tests, it's "their inflammatory response," Clemens said. "So, you'll see inflammatory markers start to spike, and depending on how they are doing, the numbers keep rising."
AdventHealth Tampa processes COVID samples for all West Florida Division hospitals. The nasal swabs and blood samples dropping into the hands of the skilled lab techs never stop.
All-day, every day, sometimes working 12 to 16-hour shifts with no days off. The lab techs are exhausted, sad but remain motivated because each vial of blood is someone in need. The automated machines carrying samples from one bay to the next are some of the most advanced and hi-tech in the world. But, it still takes an army of skilled technicians to extract the data and get it right.
"How hard has this job been for you looking for a virus you know is killing people?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked.
"There is a lot of stress with it," Clemens said. "You feel like you have the weight of the world watching all this. I feel very stressed. I see the patients, and I feel for that, and I am also concerned about my own family and the cautions we need to take, so it has changed everything that we do."
As cases in Florida continue to climb at an unprecedented rate, doctors worry the next even more deadly mutation of the virus could be lurking in their lab.
"I'm very worried about that honestly, we have to put a stop to this we have these vaccinations," Chief Medical Officer at AdventHealth Tampa Dr. Doug Ross said. "There are scientists out there who predict that at some point if we allow this to continue without getting immunized and stop it, we will get a variant that is resistant to our current vaccinations that would be starting the whole thing all over again from scratch. So we'd be back at square one."
The surge in cases impacting morale for everyone.
"How are you holding up emotionally just seeing this Delta variant come back and seeing they are higher?" Paluska asked Dr. Ross.
"I have to say it is tough. You have to remain resilient. We are in healthcare. We are meant to come and take care of people and get them better, support them," Dr. Ross said. "But, I'll tell you everyone is tired, our staff is tired, the nursing staff is tired, and I think there is also some frustration that this didn't necessarily have to occur if we had all been vaccinated."
Back in the lab, the samples keep coming. But, these unsung heroes are ready to receive and do their part to save as many lives as they can.
"We all depend on each other," Victor Cruz, the Medical Technology Supervisor at AdventHealth Tampa, said. "It is kind of scary, but at the same time, we know we are here to work and do that job, and we are doing the best we can to do it on time and to get the best results that we can. We have to treat those specimens like it's our specimen or our family and relatives specimens."