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The drivers who normally shuttle containers of blood, tissue, urine and other specimens between the state’s hospitals and labs have been racing to keep up with the new demand that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on their services.
Since the pandemic arrived in Maine almost two months ago, those drivers have been called at all hours of the day to ferry coronavirus test samples between different facilities, all while following strict new safety and health protocols.
The demand for their services really started to spike in March, when the state ramped up its surveillance for the virus, more testing materials became available from the federal government and the criteria for who could be tested were slightly loosened.
Since then, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been completing between 100 and 200 samples per day on average at its Augusta lab, although it has tested as many as 333 samples in a single day, according to an agency spokesperson. At the same time, other companies and health care groups have also begun testing specimens for COVID-19 in their own laboratories.
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Now, there has been a corresponding surge in work for the couriers, who drive vans and trucks specially equipped with coolers, dry ice and other equipment to organize specimens and keep them at the right temperature.
“We’ve been right out straight since the beginning of March,” said Charles Richmond, chief operations officer of Uniship Courier Services LLC in Hermon, a business that’s co-owned by Northern Light Health and Dahl Chase Diagnostic Services.
Before the pandemic, the company’s drivers were normally dispatched for on-demand trips once or twice per day, Richmond said. But since March, they have been dispatched six to eight times daily — and at all hours of the day — largely due to the urgent testing for COVID-19 at hospitals and nursing homes.
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While the pandemic still only drives “a small portion” of the business for General Courier in South Portland, “it’s been mighty busy,” Vice President Michael Israelson said on Wednesday.
Both Richmond and Israelson said that one of the greatest challenges has been making sure their drivers have adequate protective gear and are taking the right precautions.
Israelson gave an example from one night earlier, when St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston called just before midnight with a sample that needed to be carried to NorDx laboratory in Scarborough. While that’s not usually a complicated trip, he said the drivers must now wear face masks and follow strict screening procedures before entering the hospital and lab to ensure they are not carrying the virus. Sometimes, staff from those places will place the samples — usually consisting of a nasal swab that’s stored inside a vial — into coolers themselves to minimize contact.
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In addition to their medical shipping services, both General Courier and Uniship also provide more general courier services, too. Their drivers go all over the state, often on fixed routes.
General Courier normally employs about 73 people, but about 15 of them have voluntarily stopped working during the state’s economic shutdown that has affected other areas of their own business, Israelson said.
“We’ve had to change some routes and change times,” he said. “Before it was pretty well set. Now we can have big swings. Today is extremely busy.”
“It’s a little scary,” he added of the pandemic. “We haven’t had any cases here at General Courier. We’re happy about that.”
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The demand for Uniship’s services has changed a bit since the first case of the virus was detected in Maine. While its drivers initially had to make many trips to the state testing lab in Augusta, the company soon had to adjust its operations as other labs started to accept samples as well.
That has included NorDx in Scarborough, which is part of the Portland-based MaineHealth hospital network, and Brewer-based Northern Light Health, which runs tests for all its statewide hospitals at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. As well, commercial companies such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp have also been processing COVID-19 tests.
“Everything became a rush,” Richmond said.
Watch: Janet Mills announces partnership to triple testing capacity