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Virginia Tech to begin COVID-19 testing for local health departments

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COVID testing

Virginia Tech will begin running COVID-19 tests in Roanoke and Blacksburg for local health districts. Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke researchers Harry Sontheimer (left) and Carmen Munoz Ballester (center) on Tuesday talk with Paige Bordine, southwest regional epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health.

Scientists at Virginia Tech will begin in the next few days running COVID-19 tests in Roanoke and Blacksburg for local health districts.

“We like everyone else have been hearing for the past few months of the testing shortage in the country and a group of scientists here at Virginia Tech who do the same kind of work, came together and said well, heck, we have the equipment, we have the skills, we could do this. Why don’t we do this?” said Mike Friedlander, vice president of health sciences and technology.

One roadblock: Tech’s scientists run research labs and not diagnostic labs. For that, a lab needs what is called a CLIA license from the federal government. CLIA (pronounced like the name Lea but with a hard C) is short for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments.

Tech’s Schiffert Health Center does have a CLIA license for complex testing, but the student center doesn’t have the capacity to do widescale COVID-19 testing, Friedlander said.

A team led by Carla Finkielstein at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in Blacksburg and Harald Sontheimer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke worked with Tech’s legal and emergency management teams to navigate the regulatory process.

And they worked with the Virginia Department of Health and the New River Valley, Roanoke and Alleghany health districts on the logistics.

Friedlander said they gained approval to begin the testing through the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization Act.

He said labs in Blacksburg and Roanoke will each run 40 tests a day to start. Within a week, the labs are expected to run 160 tests a day, and two weeks later be up to 320 a day.

Friedlander said they have supplies to run several thousand tests, and they plan to purchase more machinery to get to 1,000 samples a day in a few months.

The health districts will need to supply their own swabs, but Tech is supplying all the other pieces needed to collect and transport the samples to its labs.

Tech will not have any contact with patients or with health systems and will run only tests from the health departments. Results will be filed electronically with the health departments.

Virginia is among the lowest of the states in the percentage of residents who have been tested for the virus. Gov. Ralph Northam last week appointed a task force to expand testing.

Wider testing is needed before Virginia can relax social distancing restrictions. More testing abilities would allow public health efforts to be targeted to track and isolate those who were exposed rather than continue with approaches that apply to everyone.

Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, said the increased testing is helping both with immediate response and with targeting long-term care facilities, mental health hospitals and homeless shelters where distancing can’t be practiced.

She also announced late Wednesday that her health district had recorded its first death related to the virus.

No other details were provided.

The Virginia Department of Health on Wednesday experienced a system error in compiling cases and was delayed until late afternoon in posting the numbers. Statewide, 10,266 Virginians have tested positive out of the 60,778 who have been tested. That was an increase of 636 cases, the third time in the past week that the daily positive results surpassed 600.

The department said the illness had caused the deaths of 349 people, 25 more than had been reported the day before. Hospitalizations rose by 78 cases to 1,659.

Locally, Roanoke County saw the largest daily increase in positive reports and was up six cases to 31. No new hospitalizations were reported.

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