University COVID testing exceeded original lab capacity

A+University+coronavirus+testing+worker+hands+student+Alexa+English+her+test+tube+in+order+to+take+a+COVID-19+test+at+the+Illini+Union+on+Sept.+30.

Ryan Ash

A University coronavirus testing worker hands student Alexa English her test tube in order to take a COVID-19 test at the Illini Union on Sept. 30.

By Willie Cui, Contributing Writer

Members of the University’s SHIELD testing initiative said that the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, where the University processes COVID tests, was only designed to handle 10,000 tests per day, despite the University advertising its capacity for 20,000 tests in a day.

“I don’t know where that number is from,” said Dr. Leyi Wang, a professor and virologist who oversees the processing of COVID tests at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. “Before we started, the leading scientist (Dr. Robin Holland) predicted that we do around 10,000.”

Dr. Timothy Fan, a member of the SHIELD team and professor of veterinary clinical medicine, said the laboratory was set up with the understanding that the University would be testing people once per week. 

“What drives the number of tests is often the modeling,” Fan said. “The initial purchase of machines was really designed for 10,000 tests per day, and that was under the original target of testing people once per week.”

However, epidemiologists and disease modelers felt that testing twice a week would be much more impactful in controlling the pandemic.

“That shifted the one-time-a-week planning to two-time-a-week planning, and that essentially doubled the number of samples that we would actually have to process,” Fan said.

In the first two weeks of classes, the University processed nearly 15,000 tests a day. This resulted in the laboratory being unable to process all the samples they received in an appropriate time, which “defeated the purpose” of the testing program. 

“The purpose is to get the results out fast,” said Fan. “We can do that quite well if we’re dealing with about 10,000 samples a day.”

Since then, the laboratory has somewhat expanded its capacity.

“Before we started the lab or scaled up the testing,” said Wang. “We did an estimation and predicted around 10,000. Now we can do 11-12,000, and that’s pretty good.”

However, Fan said that in order for the laboratory to process around 16-20,000 tests per day, they would need to significantly automate the testing process, which would “help efficiency and increase throughput.”

Moreover, Wang claims that the laboratory remains understaffed.

“If we had more staff maybe 15,000 is fine,” said Wang. “Another lab, they have hundreds of people, we only have 20.”

Overall, Fan believes that the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has “really risen to the challenge” and has done an admirable job in processing COVID tests. 

“Our lab has just crossed the half-a-million mark,” said Fan. “That is a significant fraction of what the state of Illinois does.”

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