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One year later: Tech marks anniversary of COVID lab

Momoko Tajiri performs RNA extraction for a batch of patient samples in the Michigan Technological University COVID-19 Testing Lab. (Photo provided by MTU via Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — The benefits of a quick testing turnaround for COVID-19 are obvious: a negative relieves stress, a positive enables quarantining and contact tracing that can limit further spread.

In the early days of the pandemic, testing could take more than a week. Early on, Michigan Technological University realized it needed to ramp up testing to get a handle on where things stood locally. With that came the need to analyze those results quickly; hence the on-campus COVID-19 lab, which celebrated its first anniversary Thursday.

“Tech realized they had the resources, and that they could do that, and that it was probably a huge benefit to both the community and the Tech community to have that testing locally,” said Karl Meingart, operations director at the lab. “… It was a huge undertaking.”

Putting it together required collaboration across disciplines, including engineering, chemical biology, forestry and medical lab science.

It starts with extracting RNA from a patient sample, using skills from biology or forestry, Meingart said. That RNA sample is then run through a PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) machine, which detects genetic material from a specific virus. There too, chemical engineering, biology and forestry come into play.

The hardest part proved to be handling patient data and sending reports to health care providers, Meingart said. That task went to the medical lab science department.

Meingart came from a research background, where he was able to arrive at conclusions through trial and error. It was a rapid change from that to COVID testing, where as Meingart said, “you get one try, and it has to be right.”

“We’ve had a lot of help along the way from people that have worked in medical labs before, and even local medical labs that have offered their expertise to us and helped us learn how to do that,” he said. “There’s no ‘learning.’ You had to do it right, right off the bat.”

In the past year, the lab has processed about 34,000 tests, Meingart said. The volume varies, intensifying during spikes when more people are seeking tests.

“It’s almost like operating a restaurant, where you’re really catering to the demands of the community and the campus,” Meingart said.

The lab has been running 12 hours a day, six hours a week. It’s been staffed by a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, graduates like Meingart who have stayed in the community, and people with full-time positions at Tech who work at the lab on top of theri normal jobs.

“The students have been so much help there,” Meingart said. “They have so much energy, and they can work the kind of hours it takes to run the lab.”

During the fall, that would mean 30-hour weeks, said Spencer Snider, who is completing his first year of his master’s degree in biology after graduating from Tech with a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science.

Snider extracts the COVID RNA from the patient samples, and also preps the reagents used in extraction.

“As a graduate student, balancing time for my studies, my research project, and my work at the COVID lab has been a challenge,” while the biggest reward was helping with the pandemic, he said.

When Delilah Hauswirth found out the lab was hiring undergraduates in August, she applied as soon as she could. The third-year medical laboratory science student helped count received samples, input the patient information, and make sure the samples are viable, properly labeled and ready for testing. During reporting shifts, she received results from the PCR lab, input them and sent them to the original facility. She spent between four and 12 hours per week on the job.

“I really had to step out of my comfort zone and work in an environment I had never experienced before,” she said. “Being able to work efficiently in critical situations with actual patient information was definitely a struggle at first, but once I became comfortable in the setting, it wasn’t as challenging.”

She also loved having a unique way to help the community.

“It was an experience I never thought I would get as an undergraduate, but it really solidified my interest and excitement to work in the medical field in the future,” she said.

As the third wave was rising last fall, the Portage Health Foundation donated funding that allowed the lab to double its testing capacity. Another team on campus is responsible for collecting the initial samples; on the other end, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department has helped the university with contact tracing.

About 50 to 75% of testing has been campus-focused, with Tech’s surveillance testing or on-demand. Community testing makes up the rest. That percentage also varies. At one point, the lab processed tests from local long-term care facilities. They have since switched to rapid antigen testing, which does not require being sent to a lab.

About 25 people are part of the daily operations, down from a peak of about 35. Another 20 to 30 people are involved in some way, Meingart said.

The lab will continue for as long as it’s needed, Meingart said. Though there won’t be as many people on campus this summer, the lab will continue operating for community testing.

Meingart hadn’t ever expected to do something that directly helped so many people in the community. And he was continually amazed at how the people at the lab innovated on the fly.

“They redefined what’s possible — the amount of samples we could get through in a shift, or the ability of people to implement new instruments in the lab while we were already at 100% capacity,” he said. “That kind of determination just to step up has been mind-blowing … not many people get that opportunity to see that in their day-to-day jobs.”

Garrett Neese can be reached at gneese@mininggazette.com.

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