D.C. universities open mobile lab to test faculty, students

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WASHINGTON (WDVM) — Starting this week, some universities in the Washington metropolitan area will test their students and faculty more robustly for COVID-19. American University and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area launched a saliva-based COVID testing system in a mobile lab.

Although it’s on wheels, the lab is parked at Gallaudet University and participating universities will send their samples to be tested there. 

The collaboration includes American, Catholic, Marymount and Gallaudet Universities. The lab has the capacity to process more than 50,000 COVID-19 tests each week, but the schools will start by testing about 5,000 weekly. The aim is to get ahead of the spread by screening instead of testing on a diagnostic basis. 

When compared with a nasal swab, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s saliva test is more affordable, and convenient. It’s also more accurate; it tests for three genes and can detect the COVID-19 variant from the UK. 

“I think it’s fair to say that institutions, K through 12, have quickly pivoted and adapted but we’ve been into this a year for most places and it’s taking a toll,” said American University’s Vice President of Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw. “Particularly if you’re a freshman or a sophomore, the ability to be on a campus, the ability to be in a classroom with others, and engagement really matters because it’s about learning in community.” 

Students and faculty at Marymount University returned to in-person learning last fall. University President Irma Becerra says students were burned out from virtual learning. “I’m excited to report for seven days in a row, no COVID at the Marymount campus. No students in isolation. So we’re doing great,” Becerra said.

A spokesperson for Marymount says saliva-based testing will be utilized for athletes and testing students at random. The Student Health Services clinic is still utilizing nasal swabs. Right now, Marymount is administering about 165 COVID-19 tests each week but the university plans to start using the mobile lab on March 10 to increase its number of weekly tests.

“It’s hard to do the surveillance testing and also at a reasonable cost,” Becerra said. “So by us collaborating [sic], we add an important capability that all the universities benefit and all the students benefit.” 

American University already has a screening protocol in place. Aw says if a student or faculty member plans to appear on campus, they’re required to take a test once or twice a week. She hopes the testing will be treated as one safety measure to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, and that students and faculty will continue to wear face coverings and social distance. 

American University is integrated into Northwest Washington’s Spring Valley neighborhood so a coronavirus spread might be harder to contain. “[The testing is] not only about the universities,” Aw said. “What we’re trying to do is also our responsibility to our communities-at-large.”

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