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Tech gets update on COVID-19 lab

Photo by Michigan Technological University Lab workers perform RNA extraction at the COVID-19 testing lab at the Great Lakes Research Center.

HOUGHTON — The COVID-19 testing lab at Michigan Technological University had run more than 4,200 tests by the end of July — 12% of the population of Houghton County, the co-leader of the lab told the Tech Board of Trustees Thursday. 

Caryn Heldt, director of Michigan Tech’s Health Research Institute, updated the board on the latest developments with the lab and how it came to be. 

Of the 4,200 tests, 95% were done for the community, Heldt said; 88% have been in the four-county area. Only about 200 were for Michigan Tech. 

The lab is averaging about 90 tests per day, and continues to scale up, Heldt said. Results come back as soon as 10 hours and as long as four days; 98% come back within 36 hours. 

“Local healthcare providers and long-term care facilities have expressed their gratitude that Tech has provided this resource to the community,” Heldt said. “The testing lab’s quick turnaround times and flexibility are hugely beneficial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, and also reducing the use of expensive personal protective equipment in our local hospitals.”

The lab was first set up in a campus research lab, back when it was anticipated it would only be in use until August. When a longer-term need became clear, it was moved to space at the Great Lakes Research Center. 

Manual RNA extractions are performed in one room, and PCR in another. Tests are performed manually. This has led to staffing problems, but also gives them less trouble with sourcing reagents and also leads to more accuracy than mechanical tests performed by big labs, Heldt said. 

“I would be heartbroken if I had ever given out inaccurate results,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be home for two weeks been able to work because they got a false positive. And I don’t want anyone unknowingly moving around freely thinking that they are not spreading COVID-19 after a false negative result.”

At the current testing capacity of 150 tests per day, each person receives an individual result. As Tech begins the fall semester, the lab will institute asymptomatic surveillance, which can handle 500 tests per day. In that method, samples are taken from five people and tested as one. The method is encouraged, but not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Heldt said. 

Individual results will not be given out if all samples are negative, Heldt said. However, if the combined sample tests positive, all the samples that composed it are retested. Those people then receive individual results. 

Asymptomatic surveillance will be available both for the Tech community and the community at large, Heldt said. Results will be back in about a day if the sample tests positive, Heldt said. 

Heldt called setting up and running the lab “one of the most frustrating, yet most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

“But the story is not about the lab, not about me,” she said. “It’s about harnessing the amazing talent that we have at Michigan Tech and at our campus.”

As state testing facilities were being overwhelmed in March, State Sen. Ed McBroom and state Rep. Greg Markkanen asked Tech to create a COVID-19 testing lab. 

Creating the lab required expertise from around the campus. Heldt was one of three people experienced in working with infectious human viruses; they determined Tech was capable of safely running a lab at Biosafety Level 2, for viruses with a moderate health risk. 

Work spanned numerous departments, from biomedical engineering to facilities management. The biology and forestry departments had machines for polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which were necessary to run the tests, as well as the experts to design testing. The Research Integrity Office provided information on what the FDA and other regulators require in a lab. 

They’ve also had external help from Johns Hopkins, which provided supplies, and Kerry Gottlieb, a pathologist with OSF Healthcare in Escanaba, who became the lab’s medical director.

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