New coronavirus testing capacity at Colorado State University could help Larimer County test more residents as it prepares to de-escalate its stay-at-home order.
CSU has been working for about five weeks to get a federal certificate of registry allowing its existing Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to process human coronavirus tests. The lab is currently processing coronavirus tests for CSU research related to the disease, but staff are working with the Larimer County health department with a goal of processing more tests for county residents.
The lab can process between 100 and 300 tests daily, and staff could increase that capacity if needed, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Director Kristy Pabilonia said. Lab staff have processed about 100 tests so far, and their turnaround time for processing is about 24 hours or less.
“We’re definitely interested (in doing more testing for the county),” Pabilonia said. “That’s why we did this — we just want to help our community. Testing is such a linchpin for answering a lot of questions in an outbreak.”
Pabilonia noted that the lab is a processing site, not a testing site, so residents looking to be tested shouldn’t visit the lab. The lab is also continuing to carry out its mission of diagnosing animal diseases.
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CSU’s new testing capability is a bright spot for Larimer County’s plan to expand regional testing capacity. Larimer County Public Health Director Tom Gonzales has said he wants to eventually test half the county at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 tests per day. He’s also said the county should be testing every person with coronavirus symptoms within 24 hours of the onset and issuing isolation orders within 6 hours of each positive reported case.
Setting up the CSU lab wasn’t too complicated from an equipment and staffing perspective because the facility already handles upward of 600,000 animal disease tests a year and regularly responds to animal disease outbreaks, Pabilonia said. The type of test that is commonly used for coronavirus is also used for animal diagnostics, and the lab is a Biosafety Level 3 facility prepared to test highly infectious bacteria and viruses.
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Dr. Bruce Smith, CSU Health Network’s specialty services director, oversees the health network’s federally certified lab and helped the Veterinary Diagnostics Lab obtain its own Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification to pave the way for human testing.
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Proving the Veterinary Diagnostics Lab could process human coronavirus tests was “the easy part,” Smith said. The harder part was everything else — the lab needed HIPPA training for lab techs and a new test reporting system to make an animal disease testing lab fit for human testing, among other requirements. And the lab’s order of 1,000 test kits was delayed by about two weeks as companies scrambled to produce the reagent needed to process coronavirus tests, Pabilonia said.
The hurdles CSU faced in setting up the testing lab show why there’s been such a delay in rolling out large-scale testing nationwide, Smith said.
“When you hear about how we need more testing from all the politicians and everything on the news, it sounds like it’s really easy to just do it. but really it comes down to, early on, there weren’t very many tests that were validated,” he said.
The Food and Drug Administration has authorized more tests now, and supply chains for test-processing materials have improved, Pabilonia said. But the vet lab needs to fine-tune its insurance billing procedures before it can easily process tests directly from health care providers, Smith said, and the region at large still needs an influx of staffing and supplies to pull off mass-testing.
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Smith himself is waiting on delivery of a machine that will allow the CSU Student Health Center to start testing students on-site. He’s hoping the machine will come by early July, which would mean the lab could process tests by August.
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Pabilonia acknowledged that CSU will need to wrangle with some “rate-limiting” factors before it can significantly boost testing capacity, but she said she’s glad her staff has finally gotten to put its resources to work in the fight against the coronavirus.
“We’ve got a 2,000-square-foot diagnostic lab that’s filled with equipment, and we know how to do this,” she said. “It was a little hard the first couple of weeks to just sit here and say, ‘We can do this. This is no different from what we do every day here.’ “
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support stories like this one by purchasing a digital subscription to the Coloradoan.
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