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May 26, 2021

Laboratory Services: No Longer Backstage

Taking Laboratory Services for granted may have been easy in the past, but that all changed last year. Since the pandemic, gratitude for people like Cindy Johnson and her Lab Services colleagues prevails across all 38 counties they serve.

In her role as senior director of CentraCare Laboratory Services and in her capacity as immediate past president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, Johnson helps educate elected officials and other national policymakers about how lab testing fits into the grand scheme of healthcare in America. It’s an objective with newfound significance in the age of COVID-19.

COVID calls

When COVID-19 hit, it became clear early on that a strategy had to be developed that would optimize the power of Laboratory Services across CentraCare to help people survive the pandemic. Johnson knew her team would be put to the test. Already vital, Lab Services’ role was suddenly amplified. Johnson and her staff found themselves on the leading edge of a national public-health crisis.

Cindy Johnson, Sr. Director, CentraCare Laboratory Services

“Dr. Mark Matthias, Physician VP, Acute Care, led a clinical pathways meeting on COVID-19 with various clinical decisions made early on,” she recalls. “It was laboratory tests, which continue to be a focus. But it was also bringing us together with all of the specialties, with our pathologists and providers, infectious disease experts and others. The clinical pathways perspective has been very, very beneficial.”

Having survived waves of testing needs, ramping up to meet the demands of an unprecedented volume each time, Laboratory Services team members have become nimble at shifting gears to help save lives during the pandemic. “It’s been a team effort,” she says. “And pulling all of us together is really kind of the catalyst to becoming One CentraCare.”

More than just a “test”

For many, getting a COVID “test” was seen as a quick and simple drive-through process. But in reality it was quite complex. “The drive-through included someone to release the orders, someone to collect the specimen, and someone to process the specimen to be sent to the laboratory,” said Johnson. “Then a courier picks up the specimen and brings it to the centralized laboratory. At that point, a team of people works on receiving, processing and testing the specimen. So it could easily be seven people involved in making sure we’re able to get the test result processed.”

The CentraCare Laboratory Services team in St. Cloud.

In addition, there were many other partners whose teamwork made it all possible. “The I.T. team was absolutely vital,” said Johnson. “Everything we do requires accuracy and appropriate identification – so bar coding and tracking were essential. Our Call Center was also key because they were handling the scheduling of COVID test collections. And our Supply Chain colleagues and couriers were crucial to having a smooth operation. It was a huge effort from many different teams.”

Unprecedented scale

Johnson served as the president of American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science in 2019-2020. Arguably, her term came at the most crucial moment in the organization’s history. When the pandemic hit, government officials in Minnesota and across the country looked to clinical laboratory leaders for testing strategies on an unprecedented scale.

Erin Telfair, Medical Lab Scientist, CentraCare, conducts COVID antibody testing.

“In the state of Minnesota, we’re part of the governor’s testing command center,” Johnson says. “I put a lot of time in at the state level with many other colleagues, making sure that we had supplies during the pandemic. On average, between 70 to 80 percent of medical decisions have some type of a laboratory test behind them,” Johnson says. “And during this past fiscal year, we completed approximately 500,000 more laboratory tests than the previous year, so it was remarkable.”

“During this past fiscal year, we completed approximately 500,000 more laboratory tests than the previous year, so it was remarkable.”

Cindy Johnson, Sr. Director, Laboratory Services

Continued recognition

Despite more awareness of Laboratory Services during the pandemic, Johnson believes it’s still easy for some people to overlook all the work that takes place behind the scenes. Calling her colleagues “heroes in lab coats,” Johnson can sound protective about her team. She says there’s a lingering well of pressure that laboratory workers and their supporting teams still face every day as the pandemic continues, even as it is subsiding.

The Carris Health Clinic Lab Team in Willmar celebrated Lab Week, April 18-24, 2021.

“Laboratory professionals play an essential role on the healthcare team and are unsung heroes that I am proud to call ‘family.’ This past year we have all been challenged both personally and professionally, but we are definitely stronger together and I appreciate the commitment to fighting this pandemic. Because our work does matter.”


  1. Joy Plamann says:

    What a wonderful story of dedication and teamwork. We could not have gotten through the pandemic without the efforts of our lab colleagues. Amazing story! Thank you!

  2. Estelle James says:

    Laboratorians are exceptional talented and skilled people. Well, just months before the pandemic there was noted throughout the country of a decrease in professional in the lab field or even choosing the field as a career. Now with limited staff, limited supplies, fear, apprehension, and their lives on the line, as usual they continue to uphold their commitment to ensure quality care and continued to work with the integrity, discipline and ethical standards that make these professionals the epitome of top level health care personnel. Oh, and did I mention that these Clinical Laboratory Scientist had the entire world (and still do) depending on them for test results identifying Covid-19, cause of the most devastating pandemic that has affected the entire world. Thanks for your service and leadership in demonstrating how a professional healthcare team works when under pressure. Who would ever think that being familiar with and common place to multitask and work under pressure would benefit the world? Your example was displayed in every healthcare lab in the world.

  3. Angela Tomei Robinson says:

    Excellent article on a dynamic laboratory team.

    Laboratory professionals deserve media attention and legislative lobbying support for education to attract and recruit new laboratory colleagues.

    And require healthcare support to retain the highly qualified laboratory professionals for highly regulated quality standards of laboratory testing for patient care ❤

  4. Suzanne Campbell says:

    Thank you Cindy Johnson and the thousands of medical laboratory professionals that I am proud to call my colleagues! Please continue the outstanding work we do for patient care! I encourage all of us to “provide the face” of the professionals for this vital member of the healthcare team.

  5. Allison says:

    I am so proud of you Aunt Cindy and your team!

  6. Jill Swanson says:

    Thanks for your dedication and amazing teamwork (Aunt) Cindy! Centracare is so fortunate to have you leading a vital group of colleagues.

  7. Kay Greenlee says:

    Amazing story. I couldn’t agree more regarding the vital role laboratory staff play within healthcare. You listened to the needs of our community and stepped up to serve. Cindy in your leadership, you guided CentraCare’s response to the testing demands of the COVID pandemic, allowing those we serve to heal. Now more than ever, we realize health really does mean everything.

  8. Tami Stanger says:

    Sometimes it is the unforeseen challenges in life that force us into greatness! The pandemic was this catalyst for the laboratory staff. The increased workload was faced with resiliency and a determination to accomplish everything that needed to be accomplished with focus and determination. We all felt the pressure but also the importance the lab brought to the fight against COVID. Hopefully we can all take a moment to reflect and celebrate the accomplishments gained!

  9. Erin Hjort says:

    Truly remarkable in every way. Thank you doesn’t seem enough. What a phenomenal example of cross-functional collaboration and learning in service to our patients and communities in a time of great need and when we were all part of that population too!

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