Amy Loftis takes charge and takes care

Working around the clock, this Massey Award winner and expert lab manager used thank-you notes and chocolate to keep her COVID-19 testing lab team going.

Amy Lotis in the COVID testing lab.
Even though Amy Loftis was working incredibly long hours herself, she remembered staff birthdays, ordered pizza for National Pizza Day, wrote personalized thank you cards. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

By now, you know the story of how the Carolina Together Testing Program team got a lab up and running in an incredible 11 weeks so that students could return to campus during the pandemic, before vaccines were widely available.

For their heroic efforts in setting up and operating the COVID Surveillance Lab, Susan Fiscus, Dr. Amir Barzin and Amy James Loftis received prestigious Massey Awards.

But what you may not know is how this high-tech lab kept running with the help of low-tech thank you notes, pizza and care.

Carolina faculty members led the lab, with help from Olivia Council and Shuntai Zhou, two lab experts on loan from the UNC Center for AIDS Research. But the 36 members of its staff were temporary technicians, supplemented by the volunteer help of graduate students and the undergraduates of the Carolina COVID-19 Student Services Corps.

“They were helping with training, competency, verification of results, processing samples and getting results to people in a timely fashion … and turnover was high as people found permanent positions elsewhere,” wrote Dr. Myron Cohen in nominating Loftis for a Massey Award. “Amy found ways to thank the staff and help them feel valued, by feeding them, introducing games and writing thank you notes to let them know how much they were appreciated.”

Remote experience comes home

Loftis is a medical laboratory supervisor for UNC Global Clinical Trials Unit and the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, both in the School of Medicine. She has set up clinical trials and training in a dozen countries, from Brazil to Zambia, and, more recently, labs testing for Ebola in rural Liberia. She was the colleague Fiscus, her mentor and the former faculty member called out of retirement to direct the COVID Surveillance Lab, said she needed to be her associate lab director.

“I can make a research clinic out of a van or a truck and a lab out of shipping or storage containers,” Loftis said. “The big difference is that I had access to a power grid and lots of benefits to doing it on a college campus.” These included staff from ITS, Facilities Services, Transportation and Parking and a host of faculty infectious disease experts.

Loftis didn’t have to make a lab out of a container this time. The University gave her 2,000 square feet in the Genome Sciences Building. She measured the space and used painter’s tape to mark equipment placement, supply and storage areas, and aisles for technicians to move through the space.

Space for wellness

The “human factor” was her biggest challenge. She had to find technicians willing to work on a temporary basis and train them for this specific lab — then train their replacements as they inevitably found permanent jobs somewhere else. “There was quite a revolving door,” she said.

Loftis knew she had to take care of her people, so her lab design included space for “wellness rooms,” places where team members could take breaks. She stocked them with aromatherapy supplies, coloring books, snacks, even specially stamped CTTP M&Ms.

“Because of the pandemic, they had already experienced a bit of burnout and a lot of stress, so it was important to me to have their wellness and their mental health considered. I wanted to make sure they knew they were appreciated,” she said.

Even though she was working incredibly long hours herself — 7 a.m. to midnight most days, sometimes not getting home till 4 a.m. — she remembered their birthdays, ordered pizza for National Pizza Day, wrote personalized thank you cards.

“Just the little things — because I wanted them to remember what it was like to be normal when everything was abnormal,” she said.

What was tougher was finding time to take care of herself. The time she and Barzin spent working in the early days of the lab were “a blur,” she said. “Amir and I each lost 20 pounds because we didn’t have time to eat. We were running on the will to complete the mission.”

Amy Loftis in PPE conducting COVID-19 testing in the lab.

Amy Loftis (left) and Olivia Council don personal protective equipment to work in the COVID Surveillance Laboratory. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

‘A safer place’

Through it all, her confidence in the mission kept her going. “If you want to have a thriving campus and you want students to be able to experience what college is really like, we needed to make sure it was safe,” she said. In the days before vaccines or treatments were available, the campus had to rely on masks, distancing and testing to make Carolina a “healthy and happy place to be.”

Cohen credited Fiscus and Loftis for the testing program’s success. “Without Susan and Amy’s hard work and dedication, the CTTP would not have succeeded. Together, they have made the campus and the community a safer place for us all,” Cohen wrote in his Massey Award nomination.

With most of the campus and community vaccinated and self-test kits readily available, the University has shut down the CTTP. Her time with the COVID Surveillance Lab was “probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had,” Loftis said, but she’s ready to transition back to the duties of her work home in the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

She also wants to spend more time in her actual home. Her husband, Jeremy Loftis, has been working remotely from home since March 2020, but barely saw her when lab operations were at their peak. “He sort of adapted to me,” she said, but at one point Jeremy asked, “Are you ever going to come home?”

Now the answer is “yes.” “I’m going to take some time off and rejuvenate myself,” she said. “I need some recovery time. I spent a lot of energy and now I need to take care of myself.”

Loftis recalled fondly the first Sunday she took off after the lab opened in January. It was March 21, her birthday. “I went to Saxapahaw with my husband and walked along the Haw River and saw the turtles and relaxed for a minute,” she said. “It was nice.”

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles to come orfind others you might have missed.