Front line medical workers, from doctors and nurses to technicians have been recognized for their gallant efforts, and rightfully so. But there’s another kind of health care worker who doesn’t get as much recognition and is equally important. As South Dakota prepares to ramp-up COVID-19 testing medical couriers are more essential than ever. A Sioux Falls company, with a contract for a major health system, is transporting the tests to get results as quickly as possible.

Handling a potential COVID-19 specimen may sound like a frightening prospect, but drivers like Gary Stewart do it all day, every day. It’s just a routine part of his job as a driver for MedSpeed, the medical courier company that shuttles specimens, pharmaceutical supplies and equipment for Avera.

“When you see the Avera vans drive by, that’s MedSpeed being that cog in the wheel to make sure things are where they need to be,” Matthew Phelps of MedSpeed said.

MedSpeed Courier Gary Stewart delivers a specimen to Avera’s lab

The demand for COVID-19 testing has also increased the demand on these couriers.

“What we’ve seen lately is a huge uptick in the need to move specimens–samples to people testing for COVID. PPP to all hospital sites and clinics,” Phelps said.

Handling specimens, which may contain deadly diseases, is nothing new. Labs follow CDC guidelines with special precautions to avoid exposure or contamination.

“We deal with TB specimens, flu, RSV and other worse diseases. This has just been a heightened awareness with this disease right now,” Mike Black of Avera Lab Service, said.

As well as heightened precautions when each courier walks in the door.

Avera Nurse: Any fever, cough or shortness of breath?

Courier Gary Stewart: No.

Avera Nurse: Take your temp here. 96.6 you’re good to go.

“So whether it be a temperature taken before they enter the building. We’ve also reduced our footprint in buildings as well to help mitigate the spread. Instead of going to six different drop off locations within a site, we only go to one now. We try to minimize our contact in every location, because we go to every single site that Avera holds or touches,” Phelps said.

That adds up to a lot of driving–up to three million miles a year throughout South Dakota and into North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

“You think COVID-19 is creating a lot of stress? It would be a nightmare without the couriers–no doubt whatsoever,” Black said.

It’s not just lab tests that make up the precious cargo for MedSpeed.

“From the MP swabs that we talk about to the masks we wear to pharmaceuticals, to supply chain–you name it–they are what connects Avera and I’m sure all health systems in that regard,” Black said.

Laboratories don’t expect the demand for COVID-19 testing to let up anytime soon, keeping these couriers on their toes.

“We shoot for the fastest turn around time that we possibly can,” Phelps said.

“It is here to stay; very similar to flu and RSV. I don’t think it’s going away–certainly the surge–we will be able to tackle that in the next few weeks to months. But then after that, I think we will continue to test. I think this is a long-term marathon we are in,” Black said.

It’s these unsung heroes behind the wheel that will keep the road race for results going.

“We’ve talked a lot about physicians. We’ve talked a lot about nurses; we’ve talked some about the laboratory. But without MedSpeed and the couriers–none of it’s possible. None of it,” Black said.

Avera supplies all the drivers with their own personal protective equipment. MedSpeed says it was able to learn from its locations in other cities, hit by the virus first, on how to get ahead of it and prepare for a surge in testing.