University announces development of on-campus testing lab

By Claire Smith
Executive Editor

Next semester, the University will establish its own on-campus testing lab for processing COVID-19 tests. The Sewanee Molecular Diagnostics Lab will be located in Spencer Hall and directed by Dr. Alyssa Summers, a faculty member in the biology department. The lab is expected to be operational by December, and will serve the smaller population of those who remain on campus over the two-month winter break. Summers and David Shipps, director of the Babson Center and acting vice president of risk management and institutional effectiveness, emphasized that the lab will be more efficient, more suited to the needs of the campus, and more cost-effective than the current testing system. 

Every member of the Sewanee “bubble” has fallen into the familiar routine of weekly COVID-19 testing, where each person working or studying on campus journeys to the Fowler Center on their designated week day to submit a saliva sample. After samples are collected, they are driven to the Baylor Lab in Chattanooga, which works in partnership with the University through Summers and Dr. Clint Smith. While samples can be tested for COVID-19 relatively quickly at the Baylor Lab, they have to be driven over in large batches and are often tested hours after they have been collected on campus.

Next semester, samples can be taken from their collection site on campus straight to the testing lab in Spencer. Summers said that this process “gives us a more responsive timeframe” to get results back and request new samples if problems occur. The new lab will also use a different collection method called anterior nares, with self-administered nasal swabs that collect mucus “just inside of your nose.” These swabs avoid some of the sample problems Summers and Smith have experienced this semester, such as food or drink contaminating saliva samples, and they are expected to be more convenient and quicker to self-administer. While the administration of testing will change, Summers and Shipps emphasized that those remaining on campus next semester should still expect a similar schedule of regular weekly COVID testing through May.

Shipps said that “while partnering with Baylor Lab has been massively successful in many respects, due to [Dr. Summers] and Dr. Smith’s work,” those involved with COVID-19 strategies were excited about a new lab on campus. Summers said a key advantage of transitioning from working with a third party was the ability to prioritize campus concerns:  “Having your own lab, you get to set your own priorities, and our priority is our Sewanee students, making sure that our campus stays happy and healthy.” Having control over its own lab will also allow more flexibility for the University  as COVID conditions change. For example, as winter approaches and worries of seasonal flu grow, the new lab plans to test all samples for both COVID and flu.

The University has made on-campus learning and robust surveillance testing key to its approach to COVID, and to its public image. Shipps emphasized that only six percent  of US universities perform widespread weekly testing. Even among its peer institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South, Sewanee fares well in its testing strategy, with most schools performing smaller-scale random testing or contact-trace testing. In-person engagement with the campus remains a major selling point both for keeping current students enrolled through the pandemic and attracting new students, which means efficient testing procedures are a top priority.

Shipps offered a “full acknowledgement that what we have done this semester has allowed us to be here right now… So if all of the current conditions remain the same when classes begin February 1, it is in our collective best interest to redeploy this testing strategy to go all the way through May.” However, widespread, weekly testing has been costly to the University, which has played a role in the 7 to 8 million dollar deficit. Shipps says an on-campus lab controlled by Sewanee faculty and tailored to the University’s smaller-scale operations  will allow for more efficient testing while incurring fewer costs. 

Shipps and Summers conceived of this lab not just as a temporary COVID provision, but as an asset to the University and the community that function beyond the pandemic. It will also test lab samples for the University Wellness Center for illnesses like strep, instead of sending them to a third-party testing site. In the future, the lab may also partner with community resources in Grundy and Franklin Counties, as well as provide internships and research opportunities for students interested in working in a clinical lab.