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NJ Newborn Screening Lab Perseveres Through Hurricane Sandy, Keeps Hundreds of Babies Safe

Categories: Emergency Preparedness & Response, State & Local Success

First, About Newborn Screening:

Life-saving public health initiatives like newborn screening (NBS) can’t be put on hold, even during and after a devastating storm like Hurricane Sandy. In this guest blog post, Dr. Scott M. Shone, a research scientist and manager of the NBS lab (pictured above) at the New Jersey Department of Health, talks about his staff’s remarkable dedication and hard work to keep NBS testing going during the storm.

Dr. Shone’s lab is one of more than 70 NBS labs in the country that screens newborns within 48 hours of birth – a short but critical period when babies, even those who look healthy, are tested for hearing loss and certain genetic, endocrine, and metabolic conditions. The timing of these blood tests is critical because early detection, diagnosis, and treatment can prevent death or more serious health problems later in life. Sometimes newborns need immediate medications or a special diet to save their lives or protect them from a lifetime of disability.

CDC’s Newborn Screening and Molecular Biology Branch is responsible for assuring the quality of NBS testing across the globe – that’s 450 labs in more than 60 countries, including Dr. Shone’s NJ NBS lab. To learn more, visit CDC’s Newborn Screening webpage and read CDC Foundation’s blog post on the Newborn Screening Translation Research Initiative.

The Words of Dr. Scott M. Shone:

Hurricane Sandy was one of the most intense experiences I have faced. The damage inland is substantial. The destruction along the New Jersey Shore is catastrophic. The places of my childhood memories – Seaside, Point Pleasant, Ocean City, and Long Beach Island – are gone. I will never be able to take my 19-month-old son to these places and say, “This is where daddy used to play when he was your age.”

Miraculously, despite the devastation to the state, my staff and I are safe and our NJ Newborn Screening (NBS) lab is operating at 100 percent with no delays (even though it took a minor hit during the storm when our building’s solar panels blew off the roof and smashed into the atrium skylights, as you can see in the below photo). We have been able to continue our life-saving work thanks to the remarkable dedication and hard work of my staff and our strong partnerships with state agencies, local government entities, NJ hospitals, and UPS (delivers blood samples for testing).

Here’s how we did it:

  • Monday: With the storm approaching, NJ Governor Chris Christie closed all state offices and UPS suspended all delivery services. However, 19 of our 34 NBS lab staff members still made it into the office – a truly heroic effort – and our local UPS center, understanding the importance of our work, delivered the day’s specimens despite being “closed.” While I sent most of my staff home by 2 pm, a few of us stayed until 4 pm – about three hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall. The drive home was wicked, to say the least.
  • Tuesday: The state remained closed. Because of my staff’s hard work the day before, we didn’t have a backlog of specimens to test, so I told everyone to stay home. That said, my quality assurance supervisor and I, as well as four staff members who live closest to the lab, offered to come in to help with the 412 specimens we received from 21 hospitals that evening.
  • Wednesday: Despite state offices still being closed, 31 of our 34 NBS lab staff members and three NBS follow-up staff members made it into work. That afternoon, 576 specimens from 40 hospitals arrived at the lab for testing. Our Capitol Post Office was closed and the NBS Program’s mail was backing up so our medical directors, Drs. Evan Cadoff and Lori Garg, took 500 plus envelopes to a local post office and paid out-of-pocket to get our mail out. (Reimbursement is coming!)
  • Thursday: The state officially reopened, and by then, UPS had restored specimen pick-up services to nearly all hospitals in NJ.

Today, 11 days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall and pummeled NJ, I am proud to say that the NJ NBS lab remains operational. We maintained testing everyday throughout the storm and its aftermath, and we reported all of our results in the required timeframes, including calling critical results to the NBS follow-up staff, most of whom were working at home with no power.

 In the end, during one of the worst natural disasters on record in the state, the screening of newborns for life-threatening conditions continued uninterrupted. There will be a lot of post-event reviews performed, and I look forward to improving our emergency system. In the meantime, please keep NJ in your thoughts as much of our state will take weeks or even months to return to a new normal.

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