U Of I Lab Working To Reduce Time To Get Results Of Saliva COVID-19 Tests
A couple hundred students, staff and faculty at the University of Illinois Springfield waited more than 48 hours for results from their saliva-based COVID-19 tests taken last week. Initial university instructions said results should be sent within a day or two.
A leader with the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the Urbana Champaign campus, which has been repurposed to analyze the tests, said the delay is due to the volume of tests the lab is trying to process.
On Monday, just over 18,000 samples were processed, said Timothy Fan, a professor of Veterinary Clinical Medicine.
“To give you perspective, that is about 20% of all COVID-19 testing that is done in the state of Illinois on a daily basis,” Fan said. “It is about one and a half to 2% of all COVID-19 testing that is performed in the United States on a daily basis.”
He said so many tests coming into the lab has created bottlenecks. The samples now come from three university campuses under the Illinois SHIELD program, the U of I initiative responsible for developing the novel, rapid test for use at the university and beyond.
Those coming to work or class at the Springfield campus this fall must get tested once a week, and those living or working at the Urbana-Champaign campus must be tested twice a week. The U of I recently announced a partnership with Greenville University in southern Illinois to provide screening there.
Fan said the team is making changes that will increase the efficiency of processing. They plan to use robots to load samples into the machines that analyze them, and want to use smaller test tubes that collect 4 milliliters of saliva through a straw, instead of the 50 milliliters containers used now.
“These liquid handling robots should be able to further increase our efficiency because they will take a lot of the processing load off of the manual transfers into robotic transfers,” he said. “They will also be a game changer in helping us keep up with high throughput.”
Fan said the lab, which the university runs in partnership with OSF Healthcare, is operating 24 hours on weekdays and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. He praised the hard work of the lab techs and assistants.
The rapid testing is part of the U of I’s plan to contain the virus spread on campus and continue with some in-person classes. By Wednesday, about 1,000 people at the Urbana-Champaign campus tested positive for COVID-19, and university leaders instituted new rules for students to limit activities.
UIS Interim Chancellor Karen Whitney said in a weekly address last week that she’s shared concerns about slow results with U of I leadership, and that they’re working to improve it.
At UIS, the people who hadn’t gotten results from the tests they took Monday of last week by two days later received an email telling them their results were “inconclusive” and they should get retested. UIS officials say they planned for results to be available within a day, and the emails with inconclusive results were automatically sent out if no results were available two days after the test.
“We still have a delay in some of the results,” said Bethany Bilyeu, executive director of Student Support Services, who oversees the UIS testing program. “But at this point, since it's a weekly process, most of those individuals will be coming in… to retest as part of the weekly process so we should be able to catch back up with everybody.”
Those automatic emails will not longer be sent, Bilyeu said, and if results show up as "inconclusive," the person should get retested. The UIS site said results are expected within 48 hours, but could take longer. Fan confirmed samples from other campuses can take more than two days to be processed as well.
The slower-than-expected results are one hiccup, Bilyeu said. But she said overall testing is going well, and they have made changes to improve the process.
For example, the testing site at Founders Residence Hall was shut down and consolidated with the one at the Public Affairs Center. The university also did away with appointments because Bilyeu said staff were spending too much time coordinating spots.
Now, UIS community members can go to the PAC to get screened 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday. To avoid getting inconclusive results, they should not eat, drink, use tobacco, brush your teeth, or use mouthwash 60 minutes prior to submitting your sample.
The data dashboard at UIS shows 3,564 tests have been done since August 17, and the 7-day average positivity rate is 0.37%.
Derek Schnapp, a spokesman for UIS, said they’re not including the number of cases in the dashboard because it may not reflect the actual spread of infection on campus.
“Some students or employees go home or isolate there and we don't get sometimes get a true number back from them,” Schnapp said. “We've had employees not even come to campus, but let us know about a positive test.”
The metrics are meant to inform the COVID-19 Response Team – the campus leaders including the chancellor – and help them make decisions about if there is a need to institute more restrictions or even close temporarily and move all classes to remote.
Possible triggers for more rules are positivity rate for students living on campus rising above 0.5% or above 1% for the rest of campus community; rooms available for isolation or quarantine at 20-40%; or three or four cases in a single day or at least three consecutive days of increased positivity rate.
Restrictions could be cancelling on-campus events, shutting down sections of campus – such as a lab or office building – or move classes online for a time.
This post will be updated.