Virus. Just the word implies that something bad is going to happen. COVID-19 has changed how we go about living our lives, complying with new rules and regulations to make our lives safer. The hope is that the virus will eventually be eliminated through vaccination or overall immunity, but the effects on how we approach work and shared physical spaces will be long-lasting.
COVID-19’s Impact on Forensic DNA Lab Staff
When states started to lock down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, government DNA laboratories were faced with difficult decisions. While personnel were deemed essential, agencies took differing approaches to staffing their DNA laboratories. Some agencies maintained full staffing, while others shut down for a period of two weeks. Most adapted a skeleton crew that required the lowest possible number of DNA analysts working to maintain a casework output. Agencies that limited staffing at the lab were then faced with keeping those at home productive while working remotely.
One state agency had a rotating crew of analysts processing samples. Analysts were coming into the laboratory and taking case folders, SOPs and other documentation to work on at home. This agency did not have a way to eliminate the need for the physical possession of case folders and documents. The practice of bringing case folders home created a potential health hazard to analysts and their families. They faced the challenge of how to sanitize case folders – a challenge that was difficult to meet. In the time of this pandemic, it became apparent that taking documents home brought a risk of infection to those at home and in the lab as the documents moved between locations. Laboratories have worked towards becoming paperless, but that is not always enough. Labs should establish more efficient, safe and secure methods to allow DNA analysts to work from home.
How DNA Labs Can Support Remote Work
A laboratory will always need staff on hand to run instruments, extract DNA samples and perform Serology. By allowing some staff to work remotely, an agency can limit the space they need and lessen the number of staff on-site. The COVID-19 pandemic may be around for quite some time, so preparing an effective way to complete casework remotely now will provide many benefits during future scenarios that may stress a laboratory’s ability to maintain a consistent case output.
STACS® DNA clients were able to work remotely and efficiently during the lockdowns and reduced staffing. STACS Casework and STACS Database allowed agencies to ‘bring work home’ without having to physically possess that work. Clients could access vast amounts of data in STACS software through a secure internet connection while at home. This is based on an agency’s IT personnel providing a Virtual Private Network and the permissions for staff to access files from home. Analysts were able to perform the following tasks during the onset of COVID-19, all while working remotely:
- Push cases/evidence to STACS via LIMS bridge (assuming analysts can remotely access your LIMS)
- Assign cases/evidence/samples to an analyst and monitor each analyst’s workload
- Generate agency reports
- Perform case review (technical and administrative)
- The system captures all images/documents/files (created by and imported into STACS) under the Case Management module for every case entered
- Case (screening/DNA) processing reports are generated and captured under Case Management
- Perform discovery
- Batch samples, allowing division of labor
- Analysts can setup (virtually allocate) their extraction, quantitation, amplification and CE batch within the application remotely and an analyst in the lab can physically set them up and place them on appropriate instruments
- The system tracks the users that perform each step
- Import and review quantitation results
- Review/configure normalization parameters before amplification
- Indicate reworks and further processing
- Import and interpret profiles through Data Analysis and Profile Management
- Mark profiles for CODIS, Y-Stats, Pop-Stats and create upload files
- Link probabilistic genotyping data and reports to final profiles, which are then captured under Case Management for review
- Access the Activity Viewer to see every activity that has been logged in the system, showing the user, date and time the activity was performed
- Generate reports on a variety of laboratory activities, such as:
- Screening and DNA processing reports
- Statistic reports
- Consumable reports
- Instrument reports
- Inventory reports
- Create custom reports and queries to mine all data contained within the system
- Monitor consumable inventory
- Determine when certain lots of consumables are to be used in the laboratory; this ensures newer shipments of consumables are not used until older shipments are consumed
- Track expiry dates of consumables
- Create consumable orders; the system will indicate when consumables need to be re-ordered
- Monitor required maintenance on instruments; the system will indicate when maintenance is due so supervisors can schedule days when technicians need to be in the laboratory
- Monitor all consumable quality control requirements; the system will indicate dates when quality control is required, allowing supervisors to again coordinate the days technicians are required in the laboratory
Conclusion: Leveraging Technology to Move Forward
The inability of scientists to access electronic data in this high tech world is a hindrance to an agency’s ability to maximize sample throughput. Instead of building a bigger lab to accommodate more people, why not build a better means to access data electronically? Having access to both a physical DNA lab and an electronic DNA lab ensures that agencies can maximize their workflow without everyone having to be in the same physical space. SOPs and instrumentation that streamline the workflow through electronic access to data allow more work to be done when not in the lab. DNA laboratories need not only to look at future technologies (e.g. Massive Parallel Sequencing) but also to proven technological advances that empower their employees to work more efficiently in this changing world.
Written with support from Paul Giroux, Field Application Specialist at STACS DNA.