UVM graduate student Lorrie Blais, Medical Laboratory Science ’21, works at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory (VDHL) Food Microbiology Laboratory, where scientists test food and environmental samples for harmful bacteria known to cause foodborne illness. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all non-essential testing at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory was suspended, and Blais now focuses on COVID-19 detection.

Medical laboratory scientists conduct chemistry and hematology analyses, crossmatch blood and perform tests to detect cancers and infectious diseases. This work requires technical expertise and professional judgement in collaboration with nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, microbiologists, pharmacists, radiologic technicians and other health care providers.

We talked to Blais about her job and how laboratory scientists in Vermont contribute valuable knowledge in the race to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Please describe the work you do at the Vermont Department of Health Laboratory.

My role at VDHL is receiving and processing the high priority COVID-19 specimens that get sent to the laboratory. This mainly involves labeling and prepping the specimens for analysis by the microbiologists.

Where do the specimens come from? How do you process them?

VDHL receives COVID-19 specimens from various pop-up testing sites hospitals, health centers and long-term care facilities throughout the state. The specimens are first triaged at UVM Medical Center. Each specimen is accessioned into our computer system and aliquoted (divided into samples) into tubes for further analysis by the microbiologists.

How did you get on board with this project? 

I have been working as a laboratory technician for the VDHL Food Microbiology Laboratory for almost a year now, so when our typical testing was paused due to the pandemic, my responsibilities shifted to work on the COVID-19 testing instead.

Does this work put you at risk for contracting COVID-19?

Although I am working with the COVID-19 specimens directly, my risk of contracting it is very low because of the extensive safety measures put in place by VDHL. All of the specimens are handled in a biological safety cabinet with appropriate personal protective equipment.

How has your coursework at UVM College of Nursing and Health Sciences prepared you for this work?

Until I started in the UVM Medical Laboratory Science Master’s Degree program, my experience with microbiology was limited to non-clinical areas such as research and food surveillance. Studying in the Medical Laboratory Science program makes me a lot more confident and comfortable with handling clinical patient specimens.

How is this work impacting your academic journey?

Having the opportunity to already start working in the field I plan to build a career in while also taking classes allows me to integrate what I learn with what I am actually doing in the lab. I am now more capable of not only bringing my medical laboratory science education into the workplace, but also my clinical experiences into the classroom.

What else should readers know about your work?

People may not realize that behind every courageous health care worker tending to those affected by COVID-19 are a number of medical laboratory scientists and public health workers dedicated to providing the critical test results. It is important to acknowledge these scientists who are working hard behind the scenes and producing the test results reported on the news.


Janet Lynn Essman Franz