Mercer opens on-campus COVID-19 testing lab in Macon

By Jennifer Borage -July 28, 2020.

Mercer University has opened a COVID-19 testing laboratory on its Macon campus as part of a multipronged approach to help mitigate the novel coronavirus as students return to campus.

The facility will allow Mercer to more quickly identify positive cases, isolate those affected and notify individuals who may have been exposed.

It plays a key role in the University’s plan to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus and preventing a local outbreak during the pandemic. The plan also includes public health measures such as requiring face masks, social distancing and increased sanitization.

Mercer Medicine and the School of Medicine operate the lab, which at its current staffing of three technicians can conduct about 740 tests per day, said Dr. Robert McKallip, chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the School of Medicine.

Approval has been received to hire more technicians and other support staff, and the instrumentation has the capacity to process “considerably more” tests as needed, he said.

The lab processes the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) nasal swab test to check for active infection of the virus. The PCR test does not detect antibodies. In most cases results will be available in one to two business days, Dr. McKallip said.

A workstation at the COVID-19 testing lab on Mercer’s Macon campus.

All traditional undergraduate students enrolled on the Macon campus are required to be tested for COVID-19 before they arrive for fall classes and may choose to be tested on Mercer’s Macon or Atlanta campuses. On July 16, these students were sent instructions on how to schedule a test.

In addition to student testing, the lab will be used to process results for faculty and staff, as well as members of the general public.

“The goal here is to serve Mercer as well as Central and rural South Georgia communities where Mercer Medicine has clinical sites,” Dr. McKallip said.

Testing will be billed through the patient’s insurance, but “no one will be turned away, regardless of their ability to pay,” he said. Most insurance companies cover the full cost of the test.

Months in the making

The June 19 opening of the on-campus lab was the culmination of months of work.

“Mercer is one of only about a dozen medical schools in the nation to have a high-quality test processing lab like this,” said Provost Dr. Scott Davis, who worked with the School of Medicine on the lab’s design, buildout and certification. “It will provide capabilities that will allow Mercer Medicine clinical sites in Central and South Georgia to get test results back more quickly and meet critical needs in rural and other underserved areas of our state.”

Conversations with the School of Medicine about mobile testing started earlier this year and resulted in the development of the lab to support that effort, which has included testing underserved populations that did not have access to other testing sites.

Dr. McKallip got involved in April when he was asked to contact Ipsum Diagnostics, an established diagnostic lab in Atlanta.

Mercer and Ipsum developed a partnership, and from there, the conversation quickly developed into finding the space to house the lab and identifying the instrumentation to fill it. In addition to repurposing research-grade equipment already on campus, the Macon-based Griffith Family Foundation provided a six-figure grant to invest in higher capacity instruments. Total investment in the lab is approximately $750,000.

Ipsum trained Mercer lab personnel on how to acquire samples, run the analysis and report the results.

As a satellite lab of Ipsum, the Mercer facility is certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. McKallip said.

“This is really a monumental accomplishment for Mercer University that was made possible by a major team effort,” he said.

“For an academic institution to be able to go in two months from essentially nothing to having a high complexity diagnostic lab up and running, it really is an unbelievable feat.”

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