How One Cannabis Lab Adapted to Covid-19
Image credit: MCR Labs
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In the face of significant worldwide disruption and local lockdown measures brought about by the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the cannabis industry has persisted onwards. Indeed, while global markets have shrunk and countries continue to struggle with the effects of economic recession, the cannabis industry actually experienced a small boom as consumers sought to stock up on cannabis products before lockdown restrictions went into effect.
Naturally, with more cannabis products being bought, more products need to be tested in a shorter time frame.And so, against the backdrop of a deadly virus, testing laboratories have had to dramatically adjust their operations to cope with this additional demand while also ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their employees.
In a talk at the Analytical Cannabis Expo West Online 2021, Dr Julie Martellini, science operations manager at Massachusetts’ MCR Labs, walked attendees through how the Framingham-based lab adapted to these new challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Putting employees first
From the beginning, MCR Labs committed to putting the health and safety of its employees first. At the heart of this approach was the enacting of a no-questions-asked sick leave policy, with no penalties attached. Through this, employees could feel secure in reporting any kind of symptom they might be experiencing, knowing that they would be supported by MCR Labs in the event that they tested positive for the virus or had to self-isolate.
But support through such a pandemic requires more than just a good sick leave policy.
“We are first line workers in a sense, the state has declared us essential. Funny enough, in lots of states that have a legal marijuana cannabis industry, cannabis was declared essential,” Martellini told talk attendees.
“This means you are exposing yourself to the possibility of Covid exposure. So MCR wanted to reflect that through hazard pay, which is also a good morale booster.”
In addition to hazard pay, MCR Labs also offered additional monetary assistance to workers who would be pivoting to remote work roles to cover the burden of any associated costs, such as home office supplies or upgrading to a more stable internet connection. On-site workers were provided perks in the form of free lunch deliveries, Covid test reimbursements, and additional overtime pay for workers whose shifts had to be changed to last longer than eight hours. MCR Labs also decided to increase wages overall across the entire company.
“You’re dealing with the pandemic, plus whatever situation you have going on at home, and you’re working very hard. We’re feeling growing pains as we’re expanding during this boom. So MCR also reflected that in the increased wages of staff overall,” Martellini said.
The increasingly hazardous nature of lab work during the pandemic also required MCR Labs to implement a number of physical changes on-site. Naturally, this included the use of physical barriers between workstations, tape lines marking social distancing zones, and mandatory mask wearing. HEPA filters were also installed into the lab’s air conditioning units and UV lights in the HVAC system to try and limit the airborne spread of the virus if a positive case was detected at the laboratory.
These physical changes also included an environmental swabbing program to detect the presence of the virus in the building or on any pieces of lab equipment. Using Phylagen environmental swabbing kits, which test for Covid-19 RNA, all zones were swabbed and tested at least weekly. A positive test in any area automatically triggered additional testing to pinpoint the positive surface to use in contact tracing, plus the professional cleaning and disinfection of the affected area.
Improved communication and assistance on staying protected from the virus
MCR Labs also made the decision to be as proactive as possible with the company’s messaging and communication with staff. In addition to staying in touch via virtual events and sending out home-delivered gifts to show their appreciation for the team’s hard work, the lab also sent out weekly Covid-19 update emails with a situation report including the latest policy information from the state, news and data from the CDC, state health department, and local testing and vaccination sites.
Since testing lab employees were deemed as essential workers, this also entitled MCR Labs employees to be a part of the state’s phase one vaccine rollout. To assist employees with getting vaccinated as soon as possible, the lab also disseminated information about the vaccination program and provided letters of support to prove employee eligibility for phase one.
Working across the divide. Image credit: MCR Labs.
With many staff members pivoting to work remotely full-time, or part-time in the lab and part-time remote, keeping lines of communication open between all personnel was a crucial part of staying operational throughout the pandemic. The increased demand for testing services meant the implementation of different shift patterns, and a new focus on communicating between each shift. Additionally, this demand has meant the need to bring in new members of staff during this new remote work phase.
“We’ve actually doubled in size, according to HR, over this past year. We’re doing that while lots of positions are remote-only, which is something MCR has never had to deal with before,” said Martellini. “Onboarding remotely has become a new system for both HR and IT, and some supervisors as well. We also have virtual training – they’re currently in the works, but some have already been developed.”
“We also have some surge support that is new to MCR,” Martellini added. “If we have people staying at home quarantining due to Covid symptoms or exposure, we need to maintain the lab. So, we have had people from other departments volunteer to train as weighers – that’s our biggest rate limiting step in the lab, taking the time to weigh those samples – so everyone is fully trained. So if we have shifts who lose people, all of a sudden, we can pull in from other departments and maintain that throughput.”
Establishing an internal Covid committee and empowering the workforce
At the heart of MCR Labs’ various anti-coronavirus initiatives was the Covid-19 Committee – an internal committee with representation from every MCR Labs department. Meeting weekly, this committee played an important role in creating and implementing the lab’s various infection disease protocols, such as decontamination logs, client appointments, contact investigations, training on various healthcare regulations, and return to work permissions.
The committee also created an online ticket portal for staff to use, where they could make anonymous Covid-related reports or offer new suggestions to the committee regarding new potentially useful protocols. The committee, as well as executive staff, also committed to hosting virtual office hours every week in order to keep these lines of communication as open as possible for other staff.
Indeed, the MCR Labs response to limiting the coronavirus exposure and transmission risk has changed many times throughout the course of the pandemic as new members have been added to the committee, and more information about the Covid-19 disease has come to light.
“We have had officially one Covid positive in the laboratory, and this was an essential worker,” said Martellini. “And not only that, it was an essential worker who was in a position to be a super spreader.”
“But luckily, we had zero cross-transmission in the laboratory. So that tells you that what was in place was working. But this staff member ended up having positive Covid tests for a very extended period of time. This has been seen in epidemiology for Covid – people can shed the virus for up to 90 days even though they’re not technically infectious anymore. So the committee had to sit on this in real-time because week after week he was not able to clear the needed tests to return to work.”
“So we enacted a new policy saying that you can have two negative Covid PCR tests or get a letter from your primary care physician where they can clear you and say you’re safe to return to work and non-infectious. That was not [a challenge] we were expecting, but we had to deal with it in real-time.”
Despite the success of MCR Labs’ approach, the laboratory is aware that it must not get complacent. And as more staff and their families get vaccinated and feel able to return to work in person, there are a whole new set of challenges to contend with – namely, finding a bigger lab to accommodate the new size of the team.
“We’re not out of this yet, but we are very hopeful for a new year,” Martellini concluded. “We have employee mental health support programs here at MCR; we’ve been going at this for over a year now and it does wear on you after a while. So we’re all in this together, and we’ve been working very hard and remain hopeful that we will be seeing a new year and a new world post-Covid-19.”