Hamilton County to lease Baylor School lab for coronavirus testing

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A sample test used to determine if someone were to have coronavirus is held by Dr. Elizabeth Forrester in her classroom at the Baylor School on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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A local preparatory school lab will begin diagnostic testing for COVID-19 Thursday morning, cutting the local coronavirus disease test result time from around a week to just a matter of hours.

In a unique agreement struck between Hamilton County and Baylor School, the lab will test COVID-19 swabs from local hospital staff and patients starting at around 65 tests per day. Within about a week, the lab's team of research scientists plans to churn out nearly 300 test results per day - more than the county has collected in total from public and private labs in the past two weeks combined.

"It's truly a remarkable thing that Baylor is doing," County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press on Wednesday, after Hamilton County commissioners voted to approve the deal. "It's the best example I can think of where a private and public partnership will do something to help the whole community be safer."

Coppinger said Baylor instructors Elizabeth Forrester, a biochemist with a doctorate in cancer biology, and Dawn Richards, a molecular microbiologist with a doctoral degree in oceanography, demonstrated they were capable of providing quicker COVID-19 testing within the county, which has been struggling to get test results from overburdened labs across the region.

Baylor, the county and the local legislative delegation worked to get the lab certified as a clinical lab to do COVID-19 testing in order to more aggressively identify and prevent the spread of the virus. Swabs will be taken from suspected coronavirus patients by medical providers and then transported to the Baylor lab, which has the technology to identify the genetic material of the coronavirus.

"It is something that we all needed to happen, so we all worked together to make it possible for this testing to happen faster and more locally to help Hamilton County stay safe," Baylor board member Jimmy Hudson told the newspaper after the agreement was presented to the county commission. "It's important that, since we have the ability, we do whatever we can to move testing along."

The mayor estimated that with the necessary equipment to increase the quantity of tests being completed daily, additional medical technicians required to operate the lab, supplies and other expenses, the county will spend roughly $1.5 million on the lab, presuming it operates as projected for three months.

"That all obviously depends on how long it has to go," Coppinger said. "Those really early numbers are based off what we expect start-up costs to be and then daily operations for three months. It could vary, but we have spoken to the state and expect to be reimbursed for the expenses when it's over."

Initially, Coppinger said, the priority will be to identify cases at local hospitals to prevent the spread of the virus among health care workers and compromised patients. Ultimately, he hopes the lab will be able to more broadly accept swabs from different providers across the county.

"That's what we saw in South Korea: lots of testing and intervention helped them keep it under control," he said. "The issue has been having the resources to do more testing when a lot of other areas and counties are shipping their [swabs] to the same few labs, so we knew that we had to do whatever it took."

Initially, local hospitals stand the most to gain by the new deal, because they will no longer need to spend valuable resources isolating patients who can be deemed COVID-19 negative through the expedited process. Hospital workers who have been exposed to infected individuals and test negative will also be able to quickly return to the front lines of patient care - where they're desperately needed throughout the pandemic - rather than wait in isolation.

The Times Free Press asked spokespeople from CHI Memorial, Erlanger Health System and Parkridge Health System questions about COVID-19 testing at the hospitals to better understand the impact of this new deal. Instead of answering questions as they pertained to each health system, representatives provided the following joint statement:

1. About how much money (range is fine) per day does it take for you to care for a suspected COVID-19 patient? Please describe what goes into that effort, what resources (special rooms, personnel, etc) do you need? The cost range depends on the acuity, or severity of the illness, of the patient. Persons Under Investigation (PUI) for COVID-19 are placed in droplet and contact isolation. Personnel entering the room are required to wear recommended Personal Protective Equipment (e.g. masks, gown, gloves, face shield, etc.). Our care teams follow protocols and policies based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. About how much PPE is needed to take care of one COVID-19 patient for one day? All staff that would be involved in patient care for a Person Under Investigation (PUI) would wear proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) based on patient's need and procedure being performed. That could involve multiple sets of PPE per patient, per day depending on the severity of the illness.

3. What lab(s) do you use to test COVID-19 specimens? What's the current average return time for tests from the lab? Initially testing was taking multiple days through the State lab and regional laboratories because the volume across the State and across the Country was so great; hence the need to limit testing to hospital patients. The three local health systems have a new solution that is able to turnaround results in one day. However, it too has limited capacity so we are continuing to restrict testing to those people who meet criteria as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

4. How many samples have you sent for testing? How many of those have been returned? How many are still pending? All testing information is provided to the media by the [Chattanooga-]Hamilton County Health Department and State of Tennessee Health Department per State designated protocol.

5. Describe your knowledge of the Baylor lab efforts and whether or not you're open to having COVID-19 samples tested there. Baylor School has made significant strides in getting the process accomplished. As a community, we have been working together to activate this as a possible testing lab. We are hopeful as we can utilize any and all options as we work collaboratively to serve our community.

6. How much does it cost the hospital to have a COVID-19 test processed? We have used several sources for lab testing and cost is dependent upon laboratory facility used.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

How we report on coronavirus numbers

Confirmed case data only provides a snapshot of the coronavirus outbreak and shouldn't be taken as an accurate reflection of how many people are currently infected.Laboratories are required to report positive COVID-19 test results to local health departments, such as the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, as soon as results are available in order to support a rapid response. The Tennessee Department of Health and other state department numbers are updated at set times during the day, so there may be a lag in the reporting of state level data.It's impossible to know how many COVID-19 tests are pending, since both public and private labs are used for testing, and providers do not report when a sample is collected. Negative results are sometimes available depending on the agency and its method of tracking COVID-19.The Times Free Press uses numbers from credible county, state, national and international public health agency sources in our coverage of the coronavirus and other infectious diseases. The newspaper also may report on COVID-19 cases that the newspaper has independently verified in an effort to keep our readers as informed as possible.All data are subject to variations and changes based on access, availability, methods and other factors that can affect data collection, making health data rarely perfect.- Elizabeth Fite