Positive or negative.

Those words spell the difference between illness and health, quarantine and life as usual for thousands of people every day in West Michigan.

And all those waiting to hear those results can thank the relentless dedication of the Spectrum Health laboratory services team.

As COVID-19 cases surge this fall, the lab runs up to 4,800 tests a day. By December, team members processed more than 500,000 COVID-19 tests.

“They are handling it and doing a wonderful job,” said Susan Smith, senior director of laboratory services.

More than 900 people work in the lab, including 150 hired since the pandemic began. Most are involved in COVID-19 testing in some way.

Phlebotomists support patient screening, providing directions and guidance for those patients asked to swab their nostrils to collect the specimen.

Other team members prepare specimens for testing and handle paperwork.

Medical technologists and specialty technologists perform the molecular tests to detect the virus.

The team works to provide results as quickly as possible. The results are provided to patients through their Spectrum Health MyChart app.

Call center employees contact those who don’t have MyChart. On a recent morning, Smith said the team had over 800 results to deliver.

The pace of work certainly takes a toll on the lab services team, she said.

“We have been running full-tilt since March,” she said. “People are pretty tired.”

What keeps them going? They know the life-changing value of a positive or negative test result for the COVID-19 virus.

It helps those with the virus monitor and treat their symptoms. And even if a patient has the virus but displays no symptoms, it can guide their actions.

“Even if you are asymptomatic, it helps you make good decisions. If you have the virus, you want to stay home and protect the rest of the community,” Smith said.

The best way for the community to show appreciation for the lab workers is to follow guidelines to prevent COVID-19 spread in the community, she said.

“We remind people to wear a mask, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others,” she said.

“You don’t know if you are standing in line next to someone who is immune-compromised. Having that mask on helps.”

Also, avoid community parties and potlucks and other gatherings where the virus could spread.

And when you get tested, patience is appreciated.

“Just be thoughtful and kind when you come in for a specimen collection,” Smith said.

“I think people really are being patient about having to wait. It’s a new day for everybody. Nobody has been through this before.”

Meet a few members of the laboratory services team:

Rhiannon Bierenga

Ramping up to add 4,800 COVID-19 tests a day to their workload took an incredible amount of collaboration from all areas of laboratory services, said Rhiannon Bierenga, director of laboratory operations.

But she wasn’t surprised to see the team find a way to make it happen.

“They have an amazing amount of tenacity and grit, and they just will take a challenge and get it done, no matter what,” she said.

“There are so many people who put all kinds of time and energy into getting our lab where it is right now to be able to serve the community.

“If all those people didn’t help pull those levers, we wouldn’t be at the level we are at right now.”

Bierenga transferred from the finance department to the lab five years ago. Coming in from the outside, she was impressed by the talent and dedication of the lab services team—a group that largely works behind the scenes.

She sees the team treat each specimen, each test result, as if it belonged to a family member.

“If the community knew how talented the people are who handle their specimens every day, they would just be overwhelmed with gratitude for the fact that these people are taking care of them,” she said.

Joyce VanderMey

“This work is my passion. It truly is,” said Joyce VanderMey, supervisor of lab support services.

“I have been here 20 years, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than with Spectrum Health going through this pandemic for our community.”

VanderMey and her team process the specimens that arrive at the laboratory, sorting and logging them before turning them over to the analyzers.

The specimens arrive by the hundreds, coming from Spectrum Health labs, nursing homes, doctor offices and emergency departments in the system.

“It can be overwhelming,” she said.

But the team members embrace the challenge. They recognize the crucial role they play in protecting the specimens, so the analysts can provide an accurate result.

“For me and my team, I believe it’s an amazing feeling to be part of something so much bigger than we are,” VanderMey said. “The care we provide for our patients and our community, along with our staff, is just amazing.

“It’s a blessing to be a part of this.”

Majesta Hovingh

Children who come to the lab for a nasal swab to test for COVID-19 understandably are often nervous.

Laboratory assistant Majesta Hovingh does everything she can to calm them.

Although she wears a face mask and shield, she points to her picture on her Spectrum Health badge, saying, “Here’s my face and here’s my smile.”

She asks them about birthday parties, favorite stuffed animals. And before their parent or guardian swabs a child’s nostrils, she shows the Q-tip-like swab that will be used.

“I hold up the swab next to their finger and ask which one is bigger,” she said. “I explain the process and try to help them feel a little more comfortable.”

The surge of COVID-19 in the community means long days and a steady pace of work for Hovingh and others collecting specimens.

“It’s exhausting work, but we know it’s worth it and it’s necessary,” she said.

Between patients, team members serve as cheerleaders for each other, providing the support and motivation to keep going.

“We sing and dance in the lab, between calling patients back,” Hovingh said.

“We know the finish line is somewhere on the horizon, but we celebrate the here and now, because that’s our only piece of certainty. Here and now, we’re encouraged by each other, and we lift each other up when the scale tips closer to exhaustion.”

Lynn Vander Laan

Among the bright spots working in this pandemic is the appreciation shown to the laboratory services department, said Lynn Vander Laan, manager of pathology and laboratory.

The team receives notes and posters saying thank you. People have sent meals.

“We have been blessed,” she said. “It’s been huge—the recognition and the praise and the collaboration between everybody and the community.”

The gratitude lifts the spirits of the team, which has worked diligently to meet the growing need for tests.

“We have team members working different shifts, different hours, coming from different departments,” she said. “Everyone has a positive attitude.

“It’s personally very rewarding to work with such a great team.”

Vander Laan urged the community to take steps to curb transmission of the virus.

“Just take the standard precautions,” she said. “Make sure you are wearing a mask. Make sure you are washing your hands frequently. Social distancing is huge.

“If you don’t feel well, stay home.”