Illinois State University plans up to 20,000 rapid coronavirus tests per week with the help of a new lab.
Federal approval for the lab has yet to come. The original hope had been to begin testing around Dec. 1. But even a month ago, ISU officials said that was a very soft deadline.
“We are starting with a single shift in the lab, which should be able to do up to between 3,000 and 5,000 samples a day,” said John Baur, the testing czar for ISU.
ISU ran about 24,000 tests total during the fall semester, so 20,000 per week would be a significant increase.
Staffing at the lab
ISU has hired a lab supervisor and staff for its campus saliva testing program.
“The laboratory supervisor is currently training at a SHIELD lab in Decatur. Then some of our lab staff starts next week,” said Baur. “So we'll be doing some training and validation for the rest of December.”
Once Food and Drug Administration approval comes, the lab should be set up by the end of the December.
“Obviously that's not a good time to get the testing started. So, we hope the lab will be ready by early January. The ideal goal is to have it ready for the first week of the semester,” said Baur.
If all goes well with distribution of a vaccine, ISU would use the rapid saliva test lab for the spring semester and possibly a summer session. Baur said it's not frustrating the center use would not be as long as it could have been.
“Well, as long as it has some utility and is able help us track infections and, and keep the numbers more manageable, I think that's a positive thing," he said. "Like anything with COVID, you just don't know what the future holds. We didn't know if there would be a vaccine or if it would be available, and I think there's still some people that are thinking, even when the vaccine is available college students are among the last groups scheduled for a vaccine when it becomes ready,” said Baur. “From a science standpoint, maybe it's a little frustrating as you go through and set this all up. But to me it’s a good thing if we don't need to keep doing it for very long.”
Baur said they have contingencies in case they need the lab in the fall.
Depending on demand, the new lab will likely be running some samples outside of ISU as part of the SHIELD system. Earlier plans were to include staff and residents at long-term care facilities and other education institutions in the community.
Baur said the availability of mass testing would not affect decisions whether to hold classes in person, in a hybrid format, or online.
“The ability to do frequent testing is basically a way to keep the campus safer rather than to change any teaching modality,” said Baur.
Baur said the per test fee is between $20 and $30. That will pay for the lab equipment and staffing. That is higher than previous estimates of about $10 per test, but still less than other options.
“What we've incurred is essentially some lab modifications and starting to hire some staff, but a lot of that will be recovered through the SHIELD arrangement that essentially provides some cost recovery for running the lab,” said Baur. The clients of SHIELD will pay a fee per test.
The saliva-based is not antigen testing. It's the PCR testing, which is more accurate and has higher sensitivity.
“I think it will help monitor outbreaks and keep the community safer,” said Baur.
The University of Illinois has compulsory testing for students; ISU is still discussing whether it will be required on a regular basis. And it depends on the timeline of when it's available.
“I think those discussions are ongoing and we'll hopefully before the start of the semester, we'll be able to answer that definitively,” said Baur.
After winter break, students living in on-campus housing will be required to participate in COVID-19 testing upon return to campus.
There was an earlier hope ISU would get some use out of the lab equipment after the pandemic passed.
“The long-term is not decided. For now the equipment's tagged with the University of Illinois, but I think we might still have the opportunity to acquire some of it at the end of the process,” said Baur.
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