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Wichita State celebrates opening of high-volume COVID-19 test lab

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly discusses new lab ahead of ribbon-cutting ceremony on WSU campus
Published: Oct. 12, 2020 at 1:44 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 at 12:33 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Wichita State University is offering a new line of defense against the spread of COVID-19 with the launch of its COVID-19 Voluntary Asymptomatic Surveillance Testing Program. The university said voluntary surveillance testing is part of its strategy to monitor and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in the community.

With the program, test samples will be analyzed either by a third party (CRL) or the Wichita State University Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory.

On Monday (Oct. 19), leaders at Wichita State cut the ribbon for the university’s new lab, designed to help rapidly process more COVID-19 tests at full capacity. Medical facilities and doctors' offices will collect samples from patients, send them to the lab, and get results within 24 hours.

“We can run 4,500 tests a day. If we need to expand, it’s just a matter of more equipment. We have more room, we have the talent and the capability, but that should equal to about 32,000 tests a week that we can run and process,” said Tonya Witherspoon, the WSU Associate Vice President of Industry Engagement and Applied Learning and MDL Executive Director.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and Sedgwick County Commissioner Pete Meitzner were among those who spoke ahead of Monday’s ribbon-cutting.

“I think the fact that you can get your results quickly allows us to do things like keep our schools open, keep our businesses open and give the reassurance to folks that they are not a threat to their family, their friends, and their neighbors,” Kelly said.

“The hard part is setting it up and that’s done and it’s operating.” Meitzner said, “I heard that they tested every athlete at WSU. Samples from every athlete is being tested right now down there. So, the challenge is going to be how do we coordinate and make sure that the schools know.”

“With a coordinated strategy, we can ramp up a screening in schools, adult care homes and correctional facilities. We can identify hotspots before they spread out of control and make sure Kansans can take proper safety precautions or avoid locations where the virus is present. We can help provide certainty that our schools and businesses can stay open safely. That’s why this new high volume testing center is so significant,” said Kelly. “Particularly here in Sedgwick County and surrounding areas, which are home to some of our largest employers and school districts in Kansas.”

This lab has been in development for the last six months as a collaboration between different departments at Wichita State.

It’s currently being housed at a warehouse on the south side of Spirit AeroSystems’ campus.

“The fact that we’ve turned an empty warehouse into a state of the art lab in six months is just pretty exciting to me,” said MDL director Dr. Joel Alderson.

Witherspoon said, “We look at why is testing so hard, why is Kansas at the bottom of the list? That was really the question, what is so hard about this, we really that our clinics are set up to be generalists. They do tons of testing every day but many, many different kinds and there was nothing that did high throughput, one kind of testing.”

MDL will primarily serve Sedgwick County and surrounding areas.

This is the first lab of its kind in the Wichita area, employing 30 people including some WSU undergrad students.

“Get students involved in real-world problems and start something.” Witherspoon said, “These students are getting an opportunity hardly anyone gets. Not only are they doing something that they will tell their grandkids about because this pandemic will be history but they’re starting a new business. We’re doing everything from the very beginning.”

The lab is also looking ahead to what is next.

“Use this lab to think through how we should prepare for future tests, the flu is still a problem. Having access to this is important. At some point when the antibody tests actually give us information that makes sense, we could also provide that, in addition to if this mutates,” said Witherspoon. “We’re already working on the multi-plex assay that was released by the CDC that will allow us to test with one specimen for COVID, Flu-A, Flu-B and RSV and we’ll have that by November.”

Sedgwick County also dedicated more than $4million of the county’s CARES Act funding to the lab to support equipment purchases and set up.

“Access to low-cost, quick-response COVID-19 tests will help to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community and minimize the risk of closing schools,” said Dr. Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools ahead of Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The addition of WSU’s high-volume testing is a mitigating measure that will help to ensure that students and school staff have the safest-possible learning and work environments that our community can provide.”

While this testing is not mandatory, WSU is asking students to consider taking part in this voluntary testing program “to help protect our campus community.” The lab will also be able to process saliva tests, not just the nasal swabs that are currently used to get samples.

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