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USU Alum Manages Lab That Supports COVID-19 Testing for State of Michigan

Dr. Riner sitting at a lab table
By Vivian Mason

The scope of the current pandemic is unprecedented, and its mitigation requires a multitude of specialists from many fields. Many Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) alumni nationwide are among these incredible contributors who are supporting COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts, including Diana Riner, Ph.D., the Virology and Immunology Section manager with the Bureau of Laboratories for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The 2013 graduate of USU’s Emerging Infectious Diseases program is currently part of the effort to provide testing for SARs-CoV-2, or COVID-19, to the Michigan population. The State of Michigan’s Public Health Laboratory was the first in the state to begin testing, and lab staff have been continuously evaluating new test methods as those methods have gotten Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approvals.

Dr. Riner plans, organizes, directs, and controls the virology and immunology Section work activities to support diagnostic public health virology testing for the State of Michigan. She designs and directs the Section quality assurance plan to ensure continuous improvement of testing services. As Section manager, she directs and designs investigative work to develop improved testing methodologies and services.

COVID-19 samples in a purple tray
COVID-19 samples (Photo by Amanda Wagner, Naval Health Research Center)

“I’ve always found viral diseases fascinating.  In my job, I primarily manage and oversee COVID-19 testing that occurs at the Public Health Laboratory. I ensure that the clinical testing performed for COVID-19 is performed at the highest standards and follows the guidelines set by the College of American Pathologists,” Riner said. “What makes working in public health especially rewarding for me is having the opportunity to work with federal, state, and local partners to carry out public health responses.  The response to COVID-19 has been unparalleled in its scope. It’s taken people working across all levels of government to formulate this response and put together control measures to slow the spread of this disease. The training I received at USU helped prepare me for this career. You learn. You plan. You adapt. Sometimes you don’t think you’ll use or need certain lessons, but, truthfully, you never know what you’re going to need. You bring a lot from every experience.”

According to Riner, every state lab is slightly different, with each providing clinical testing for infectious diseases and performing infectious disease surveillance. The Michigan Bureau of Laboratories Virology Section does flu testing and flu surveillance each year.

“To perform high complexity testing,” Riner emphasizes, “you have to have qualified people to conduct those types of tests. Not just anyone can do it. And, most importantly, you need to be able to trust the clinical result that you’re given.”

Clinical microbiologists juggle many tests across multiple disciplines of laboratory medicine. They must completely understand every specimen collection and transport requirement. If the specimens are not collected correctly, then the laboratory test will not be valid.

Capt. Nicholas Buck uses a lab device in full protective gear
Capt. Nicholas Buck, a medical operations officer and
medical section leader with the Michigan Army
National Guard's 51st Civil Support Team, performs a
COVID-19 detection test at the Michigan Bureau of
Laboratories, Michigan Department of Health and
Human Services, as part of the Guard's COVID-19
pandemic response effort in Lansing Mich., April 17,
2020. (Photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker,
Michigan National Guard)
“During a typical flu season,” explains Dr. Riner, “the lab tests about 1,000 flu specimens. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, that number has significantly increased. From the end of February to late April, we have tested more than 10,000 specimens for COVID-19.” The laboratory’s capacity for testing has continuously expanded since bringing on testing at the end of February. Currently, the laboratory is able to test about 600 specimens per day.

Testing specimens for COVID-19 is not a simple process. There are now a number of molecular methods with EUAs available to detect the virus in clinical specimens. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, from the number of specimens that can be tested at a time, to the length of time it takes to perform the test, to what type of clinical specimens can be run through each of the test methods. “Thus, it’s so important,” states Riner, “to have laboratory professionals who possess the needed skills and knowledge along with the integrity to ensure that accurate results are reported.

 “It’s so rewarding to be working behind the scenes to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on and support patients who are battling COVID-19. Every day presents a new challenge and a new way to adapt to changing rules and to evolve so that we can continue to provide the testing for the population of Michigan,” said Riner.

“A strong laboratory infrastructure is crucial to fighting COVID-19 in order to protect people across the nation.”