Monarch Molecular Lab exemplifies teamwork to keep ODU safe « News @ ODU

By Erica Howell

When the pandemic began in early 2020, Old Dominion University formed the COVID Response Team to address the unprecedented need to protect students, faculty, and staff.

Recognizing that on-campus testing would be essential for a return to in-person work and learning, the team led the development of the Monarch Molecular Lab, which conducted nearly 20,000 tests.

“Throughout the entire pandemic, ODU has not had a single major outbreak of COVID among students,” said Morris Foster, vice president of research. “Our testing capacity arguably allowed us to contain any potential outbreaks before they spread.”

Now, with the last wave dwindling, the lab is poised to move on to other diagnostic tests.

“This is a state-of-the-art molecular lab,” said Darylnet Lyttle, director of student health services. “ODU has created a model institution for higher education.”

Foster and Bonnie Van Lunen, dean of the College of Health Sciences, led the charge to develop testing capabilities on campus. They worked with representatives from the Office of Risk Management, Student Health Services, COVID Care Team, Student Engagement and Enrollment Services, Environmental Health and Safety and of the College of Health Sciences to assess the necessary actions.

Once it became clear that testing would be essential, Van Lunen approached Harold Riethman, chair of the department of medical diagnostics and translational sciences, with the idea of ​​an on-campus molecular lab.

Riethman ran with it. He recruited technical and general supervisor Peter Mollica, who had experience as a clinical supervisor, and guided the team through the process to achieve CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvements Amendments) 1988 certification with no affiliation to a medical school. With a lot of hard work, collaboration, and heart, the Monarch Molecular Lab was born, giving the University the ability to host students on campus.

Van Lunen credits the work of many people on campus for the quick and successful response.

“The heart of any university is its people,” Van Lunen said. “Our faculty, staff and students have offered the valuable gift of their time to set up the testing center and laboratory in response to the needs of the University.”

As clinical director, Mollica supervises three full-time molecular technologists, several part-time technologists and graduate students in biomedical sciences. Mollica recruited clinical lab supervisor Delaney Leathers to oversee lab operations.

From August 27, 2021 to March 3, the laboratory performed 18,720 tests; 17,215 were negative. Tests are administered 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. The lab is sometimes open later to process tests that arrive late and to thoroughly clean and disinfect.

“The work environment in the lab can be very stressful, but the staff are resilient and able to quickly modify work to meet demand and new variations,” Leathers said. They were able to prepare for the influx of testing when the omicron variant appeared in late 2021.

ODU’s COVID testing has become a well-oiled machine. Students, faculty, and staff can schedule an appointment or enter the testing center at the Jim Jarrett Athletic Administration Building Annex. Nurses from Premier Healthcare Services, under contract with the University, carry out the tests. Molecular laboratory technologists perform the tests and report the results to Student Health Services.

Student Health Services also works with the lab to store vaccines. Vaccine appointments are available for students, faculty, and staff, and the lab has a freezer that meets Pfizer’s vaccine requirements, as well as a refrigerator that meets Moderna’s requirements. .

Early on, the team worked with technical support professionals from Information Technology Services (ITS) to set up a temporary testing facility at Chartway Arena. Laptops and printers were installed and the COVID dashboard was created. The lab reports results through software used by student health services.

Lyttle said the testing lab is the best asset of student health services. Results are usually available within five hours, and Student Health Services is then able to contact students.

“We have the fastest turnaround of any I’ve worked with,” added Shamir Hines-Battle, a technologist.

When the lab opens, the tests were done manually. But a few months later, the cobas® 6800 arrived. The diagnostic machine runs 188 tests at a time in less than three hours, allowing staff to run more tests.

“We talk about the equipment like it’s our child,” Garcia said.

Like many parents, the technologists talked about their child’s growth potential.

Aaron Harrison, a molecular technologist, said the lab could offer testing for a variety of medical issues, “not just for students, but for the community in need.”

Thanks to its CLIA certification, the laboratory has the potential to research and develop its own tests. It could also collaborate with other entities on campus, such as the future ODU Primary Care Clinic and the Center for Innovation, Education and Research in Telehealth.

Hines-Battle, a technologist, also sees possible future growth for the lab. “We could do testing for women’s health for the University and the community,” she said.

Reflecting on all the resources poured into the lab, Meg Hept, a biomedical Ph.D. student working part-time in the lab, said she was proud to be part of an effort that had such an impact. “The Monarch Molecular Lab is a great way to keep ODU safe, provide peace of mind for students, and keep us safe open,” she said.

“Setting up the test center was complicated from start to finish with a lot of people involved,” added technical support professional Matt Soricelli. “But it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have a university to keep open.”

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