By Mario Jones
Every holiday season, parents face a minor panic over whether they’ll be able to get their hands on that must-have toy or video game their kids are wanting. They park themselves outside their local big-box store before opening time or scour the internet in the pre-dawn hours — but a shortage means no guarantee that item will be found.
In industry terms, we’re talking about supply chains, which are how products are produced, shipped, delivered and stocked.
This year, supply chain woes are making bigger headlines than usual. Thanks to shipping delays, labor shortages and even climate change, Americans are having trouble finding wish-list items for little ones and, yes, Christmas trees.
But since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues have extended beyond the holidays and plagued our battle against the global virus. We first ran low on personal protective equipment (PPE) and antibacterial wipes (not to mention toilet paper). Now, with the demand for COVID tests increasing as cold weather and travel ramp up, news reports are telling us that availability is becoming scarce.
But not for Worksite Labs.
Through all the ups and downs of the pandemic and supply chain woes, we’ve prided ourselves on high polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing availability. So, what exactly are we doing to ensure you get the COVID test (and timely result) you need for work, travel or school? And how do we keep things moving in case something doesn’t go as planned?
1. Building relationships…and lots of them
The PCR testing process — from taking samples (swabs, tubes and collection bags) to processing them (PCR plates and pipette tips) — requires many small materials. When Worksite Labs started, many major medical equipment suppliers were flat-out strapped for materials they usually keep in stock. That meant we had to be creative and persistent with our sourcing.
We opted to establish as many vendor relationships as possible, so if one supplier ran out of product, we could quickly ask another to sub in. Between leveraging industry connections and making good old-fashioned cold calls, we built a large vendor portfolio of mostly small U.S. businesses. Purchasing from these suppliers allowed us to bolster the companies hit hardest by the pandemic and to circumvent shortages early on.
We also developed connections to other suppliers both domestically and overseas. Those include an international company that now supplies our pre-made collection kits (collection bags, swabs and tubes) — a big time-saver, as our field teams previously assembled the kits themselves.
By hustling to form as many connections as possible, Worksite Labs showed the industry how determined we are to get the job done. And that, in turn, makes even more people want to work with us.
2. Planning for prolonged processes
Transporting materials to our testing and processing sites — not to mention getting the sites themselves set up — can take anywhere from a few days to a couple months. It largely depends both on how far we need to move materials and local requirements for establishing the labs. Planning and coordination are everything when it comes to getting one of our sites operational and fit for customer service on time.
For one, we need to know which local permits are needed and how long it takes to get them. Some localities have quick, consolidated permitting processes, while others are more exacting and drawn out. (It took 30 to 60 days to obtain the proper permits for our lab in Culver City, California, for example.)
We also must decide whether to transport materials by air or sea. That’s easy when a lab needs to be running as soon as possible, in which case air delivery is the clear choice. But even when our timeline is more relaxed, we must determine whether maritime shipping is worth the potential risk. U.S. ports, after all, have been jammed for months, and fewer drivers are willing to serve ports because of that uncertainty.
Lots of moving parts, right? Between the production, shipping and delivery of materials and the lab setup process, dozens of factors must go right before a test is finally administered. So, how do we handle it when one or more steps in the supply chain go wrong?
3. Anticipating changes and challenges
I previously served in a logistical role for a medical device company, gathering different implant and supplies for surgeries. It was a high-pressure task, especially when emergency or trauma cases were involved. The same dire attitude I brought to that job has helped ensure Worksite Labs’ testing availability remains high, even when the supply chain encounters shortages or delays.
Knowing when and where demand for COVID testing will increase or decrease is essential. As a team of longtime healthcare professionals, we know that the need for pathogen testing of any kind increases during major holiday and other peak travel seasons. We prepare to welcome more customers at these times by ordering larger quantities of materials and keeping our vendor network on standby in case of a setback.
Our decentralized business model and flexible, dedicated employees also enable us to meet changing needs. By scaling up our staff during busier seasons, we ensure that each location processes the maximum possible number of tests. Once the demand decreases, we can scale down our staffing by consolidating locations or flexing hours. Brick-and-mortar testing providers can only handle set amounts of traffic; Worksite Labs locations can restructure quickly to meet whatever the need might be.
The months’ worth of detailed planning and procedure that go into COVID-19 testing demonstrate how even one little hiccup or delay can disrupt the supply chain. And though Worksite Labs has effective strategies in place to overcome these obstacles, not all consumer goods providers can say the same. This holiday season, be patient if a certain product or service takes a little longer to obtain than usual. There’s probably much more that goes into it than you think.
Mario Jones is the vice president of operations at Worksite Labs.