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Story and video by Kristen Browning-Blas, CSU
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, Larimer County Director of Public Health Tom Gonzales and CSU President Joyce McConnell talk every day, by phone, text or video meeting. But they had not met in person until Friday, when the public health team paid a visit to the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is processing an average of 1,000 COVID-19 tests from county residents and Colorado skilled nursing facilities every day.
In the early days of the pandemic, university health and research leaders recognized that the laboratory was uniquely positioned to contribute to Larimer County’s testing capacity. In April, lab director Dr. Kristy Pabilonia worked with CSU’s Health and Medical Center and the office of the Vice President for Research to obtain Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification for laboratory testing performed on humans.
Since then, the lab has processed more than 60,000 COVID-19 tests, in addition to 95,000 veterinary cases, for pathogens such as rabies and tularemia. In a normal year, the lab processes over half a million animal tests.
“People might not realize that we’ve been so strong in veterinary diagnostics for a long time. To make the transition to human testing so quickly demonstrates the wisdom of a university and all of its teams to be able to pull together and make that happen. I want to recognize Kristy and the people here – the way they have mobilized has been extraordinary,” McConnell said.
“The conversion of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to serving human clinical needs during COVID is a great story that involves many across campus,” Alan Rudolph, CSU’s vice president for research, said after the tour. “Indeed, the VDL has been amazing in executing 3,000-5,000 tests per week that have been supporting the state senior care workforce and saving lives.” The lab is processing those tests as part of the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging’s research project testing asymptomatic health care workers and residents in skilled nursing facilities.
As positive cases continue to rise, Gonzales (a 1996 CSU Environmental Health alum) and his team came away from the visit with bolstered confidence about the integrity of the testing process. The public can access the latest data on Larimer County’s dashboard.
“We feel very confident that when a test is positive, it’s positive, and that helps with contact tracing,” said Gonzales as he watched scientists handling samples behind thick glass in the lab’s Biosafety Level 3 facility. “Seeing the people in action, the great work that’s going on here, it is phenomenal. It’s helping us to beat this pandemic.”
The BSL-3 lab tests highly infectious bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, using high-throughput equipment (real-time polymerase chain reaction assay) that can test 96 samples at a time. Machines run continuously and the staff has been working overtime to keep up with the rising demand. Labs across the country share hard-to-find supplies, even basics like alcohol and pipette tips.
“Our public health system is fragile, fragile enough that sometimes we can’t even get pipettes,” McConnell said. “Understanding the points in our process that are fragile is very important for the public to know. The entire system needs support.”