In their own words: corporate first responders on frontline of production war

Scott Tong May 5, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
A COVID-19 testing lab in New York. Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images

In their own words: corporate first responders on frontline of production war

Scott Tong May 5, 2020
A COVID-19 testing lab in New York. Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images

As a coronavirus test-making facility in Maryland mobilizes into a production war, employees speak of the stakes involved and the fear, frustration and pride of being front and center during this pandemic.

A husband-and-wife team of lab managers. An international operations manager. A quality-control scientist. A producer of test-kit components. We hear directly from Maryland employees of Qiagen, a Hilden, Germany-based biotech manufacturer of a one-hour COVID-19 test kit as well as a critical piece of the virus-lab testing chain known as an RNA extraction kit.

Qiagen’s RNA extraction kit (Photo courtesy of Qiagen)

The interviews were edited for clarity and length.

Je Vai Bass-Perry and Jonathan Perry, senior lab managers, husband and wife

Je Vai: I am the senior manager of the vialing and assembly production area. We basically are manufacturing components for kits. I’ve been with Qiagen since 2006. We are required to wear protective equipment when we actually work in the laboratory, so hair nets, safety glasses, lab coats, face masks, ear covers, shoe covers.

Jonathan and I have two children in school. My oldest is 9 and my youngest is 4. So, right before everything kind of got crazy, management had discussed the possibility of people’s schedule changing to accommodate child care and education. So currently, I am home-schooling in the morning from 7 to 10. And then I come to work, from 10 to 7:30. I have really long days now.

Jonathan: I make the bulk solutions that go into the various kits that we make. We actually deliver those to either the warehouse or to Je Vai’s area for vialing and assembly. She’s downstream and I’m upstream.

We do run into supply-chain issues, of the bottles or raw materials that we get from [headquarters in] Germany. So we will be able to start with the individual kits, but as far as the scale-up and the ramp-up to meet the expected requirements, we still are a little ways off.

With Je Vai having to shift to the second shift, I pick the boys up. We do a little bit of schooling when I get home. I’ll go through and check the work and make sure if they did something wrong.

Je Vai: Correction. It’s not the work I did. It’s the work I assigned my sons’ day care to do. So we’re clear.

He really stepped up, and I didn’t have to ask. Not to be, you know, “The woman does this and the guy does this,” but we have to kind of change roles a little bit in order to maintain a sense of normalcy for our children. We talk to the kids at least 15-20 minutes before we rush them off to bed. Sometimes we are up late at night, pulling out our laptops sitting next to each other.

“Being an African American, which this disease … affects more greatly, I can see the nobility of trying to make sure we do everything we can.”

Jonathan Perry, Qiagen lab manager

Jonathan: Both of our parents are in their 70s, and I guess being an African American, which this disease at least from the statistics affects more greatly, I can see the nobility of trying to make sure we do everything we can to limit the effects of this disease.

Sean Augerson, operations manager, Asia and Americas

Sean Augerson, operations manager, Asia and Americas (Photo courtesy of Qiagen)

On ramping up production and hiring: So we took a tact of having a couple people put something out on Facebook and say, “We’re looking for these different types of roles, and if you’re interested, apply.” And this exploded. It went viral. We had people that had retired from the company saying they could come back. We’ve had people impacted by organizational changes reach out directly, saying, “I’ll come back in a second. Whatever I can do, and my husband can come back. We’re both scientists.” We had an overflowing of resumes within 12 to 24 hours.

On supply-chain challenges and unavailable parts: Inventory—keep it down to the lowest possible level, which includes your raw materials. Well, when you have a supply chain globally that just explodes, you are not going to get those raw materials because your vendor is not going to be prepared, because you’re saying, “I need a year’s worth next week.” So my gut feeling would be that there’ll be a rethinking of those strategies because that is definitely a weakness with a pandemic. We’re hoping that we can [deliver] stuff by end of May. It’s more looking in the June time frame because we don’t have some of these different pieces. You know, patience is not my strength, and I want to get in this fight as soon as we can.

“One thing I’ve learned from my Chinese colleagues is that you have to respect the virus and the situation. If you take it lightly, you will get burned.”

Sean Augerson, Qiagen operations manager, Asia and Americas

The virus, you feel like it is still lurking everywhere. Especially since we know people that have passed away from the virus. And it does still feel like the [Washington, D.C., sniper attacks of 2002] because you don’t know. You’re worried about your family when they go out. You stop at the gas station, you have to go to the grocery store. If other people aren’t taking it seriously, that could jeopardize me, my family, my colleagues at work. One thing I’ve learned from my Chinese colleagues is that you have to respect the virus and the situation. If you take it lightly, you will get burned.

Henry Butler, quality-control scientist

Basically we are the company’s last line of defense. We have to come up with test methods to test what goes into the kit. We’ve been very busy recently. It’s actually quite intense. And we do know that there’s still more to come because you want to be able to have theoretically everybody tested.

We’ve decided to go into this COVID-19 test, and we have to keep our word. [But] we can’t lose sight of the other things that we make. For example, we make a tuberculosis testing kit. We can’t say to the world, “Hey, everybody who is suffering from TB. Sorry, you just have to die for now.”

“We can’t lose sight of the other things we make…. We can’t say to the world ‘Hey, everybody who is suffering from TB. Sorry, you just have to die for now.’ “

Henry Butler, quality-control scientist, Qiagen

Eighty percent of the work we do has to be done in the lab. Despite social distancing and PPE, we don’t know enough about this virus to say this is the absolute way that you don’t get infected. So it’s an extra anxiety. The tension is not just, “OK I have a lot of work to do,” but also that thing at the back of your mind that you have a chance of getting infected.

Even in the time when you get your [COVID-19] result back, it means you’re clean forever, right? That very day might be the day you get in contact with someone who has it. So yes, we have to practice our disciplines outside of work too. I have to make sure I’m protecting my colleagues by what I do when I’m out of the building. Once you’re an essential worker, it means that you have the responsibility of protecting those around you from you in case you’re infected.

Henry Butler, quality-control scientist (Photo courtesy of Qiagen)

For our equipment if anything gets delayed, it’s going to take more than the normal time to get things fixed. Right now with this COVID-19, some of our instrument vendors, they don’t send out technicians. They try to protect them as much as possible. So the first thing they’ll try to do is to see if they can solve your problem by phone. And so every time you have a problem, it’s going to take double the time to solve that problem. You keep your fingers crossed, pray about everything you do and hope things go well. And at the same time you cannot get frustrated when things do go wrong because frustration will slow down the pace.

We do see ourselves as first responders and take on that responsibility. If you don’t look at yourself that way, then you just see yourself put in harm’s way for no reason. It could be your family member who needs this kit. Or it could be you yourself. You never know.

Steve Cononie, plate manufacturer

We know that what we’re doing can help people out all over the world. And, you know, granted 10 hours a day, I’m not used to it. I have a big garden, so it takes a little bit of time away from that, but in the long run it will be worth it. My fiancée is living at home with me and she is able to work from home and she’s very supportive about me, you know, putting in the extra hours.

I wear a mask now 10 hours a day. And then when I go out in public that was my time to not have it on. But now I have to wear it even when I’m out in public, so now the only time I take it off is when I go to sleep.

Steve Cononie, plate manufacturer (Photo courtesy of Qiagen)

“Lunch. It’s hard because we always used to sit together. So now you have to kind of sit at a table [alone] and everybody’s facing forward … like we’re back in high school and taking our SATs.”

Steve Cononie, Qiagen plate manufacturer

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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