Chimacum grad now leads large-scale virus-testing lab

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It was the first day of his college microbiology class when Chimacum High School graduate Alex Higgins realized he wasn’t going to be a nurse.

After getting a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, Higgins wanted a career with a reliable income. He loved molecular biology, but didn’t want to pursue a PhD, so he decided to go to nursing school.

This decision led him to his actual career.

“At the start of a class, they always ask everyone to go around and say your name and your major,” he said. “Toward the back of the microbiology class, I heard two people say they were in medical technology.”

Higgins had never heard of medical technology. But he did know his favorite part of biotechnology was working in a lab. He also knew he wanted a career that could make a difference in the world.

Fast forward to 2020, and Higgins has been at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus in Washington state. He leads a team of medical technicians as lab manager at Northwest Laboratories in Bellingham, where they are helping Washington state process coronavirus tests.

Since March 27, Northwest Laboratories has processed at least 30,000 coronavirus tests with a turnaround time of about 24 hours for test results.

“We had a vision to do this testing and to serve Washington state to do this testing so that we all can get back to our real lives,” Higgins said.

Northwest Laboratories opened its doors in January 2019 in response to Quest Laboratories buying up the local community lab, which Higgins had worked for previously.

“Community physicians and the health-care community were very unhappy with what had happened because the turnaround time for test results and customer service had taken a nosedive,” he said.

A group of pathologists envisioned a new laboratory and asked Higgins to help them start Northwest Laboratory.

“We’ve built this thing from scratch,” he said.

Most of the time, medical technicians use lab technology to analyze blood and other body fluids, as well as tissue samples for physicians.

Getting results in a timely manner helps doctors properly diagnose patients and give them the best care.

“Labcorp and Quest labs have been buying up smaller rural laboratories all over the country,” Higgins said. “That’s exactly what happened in Bellingham.”

But sometimes it can take 11 to 14 days to get results from a larger nationwide laboratory, which sends tests to faraway states, like New Jersey.

Getting test results in a timely manner is always important: No one wants to wait 14 days to know if they have a deadly disease. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought this issue to the forefront.

“Quick turnaround is essential for us to do the necessary case investigation and contact tracing that follows a positive test,” said Tom Locke, Jefferson County’s public health officer. “The longer it takes to get the test result, the more time the virus has to spread.”

Jefferson County has been sending most tests to the University of Washington or the Department of Health’s lab, while also running some tests at Jefferson Healthcare.

“In mid-to-late March, the turnaround times for Quest and Labcorp were extreme,” Locke said. “Seven to 10 days, with the local record being an astonishing 14-day delay. This was because they are national labs and were overwhelmed with samples.”

That is why local labs like Northwest Laboratories stepped up to decrease the turnaround time in the state. The lab teamed up with the University of Washington and the state’s Department of Health to start running tests.

They had to purchase an extractor and a thermocycler, two machines necessary for running coronavirus tests.

“It was hard to get it,” Higgins said. “But we were pulling all the stops to vet ourselves to Thermo Fisher to say we are serious about this.”

Northwest Laboratories started running tests March 27 after approval from the state.

Since they still have to run their regular medical tests, Higgins said the company hired more people.

The lab partnered with its next-door neighbor, Western Washington University, to hire professors and students who are experts in molecular technology.

“We have professors here and students here who want to help during this crisis and not stay home,” he said.

All the test results go to the state Department of Health, which then faxes results to county health jurisdictions.

Jefferson County Public Health generally sends tests to the University of Washington testing lab, because it’s difficult to get a courier from Bellingham to the Peninsula.

But Northwest Laboratories often works with Jefferson Healthcare for other medical tests.

For Higgins, it’s important knowing his lab’s test results will be part of the larger state effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And even though he no longer lives in Jefferson County, he has his mind on his home county, where his parents still live.

“We have a very good relationship with Jefferson Healthcare,” Higgins said. “You guys are part of our community already. We’re in Bellingham, but we’re still looking out for you guys.”

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