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How a pioneering COVID testing lab helped keep Northeast colleges open
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Twice a week, students at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., go to a parking garage to blow their noses.
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After clearing their nostrils, they douse their hands in sanitizer, then proceed to a tent where, under the watchful eyes of trained emergency medical technicians, they swab their nasal passages. Then they stick the swab into a vial, the vial into a box, sanitize their hands again, and head out.
Once the testing site closes each day, Rita Coppola-Wallace , Williams’s executive director of planning, design and construction, gathers the bounty—up to 1,100 test tubes—and loads them into a waiting car. The samples are whisked off to Cambridge, Mass., 150 miles away, and processed alongside tens of thousands of others overnight at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biomedical and genomics research center.
A primary reason many colleges in Massachusetts, New York, Maine and Vermont have experienced few coronavirus outbreaks this fall has been frequent, widespread testing. At 108 colleges and universities, that testing is being done within a carefully orchestrated system run by the Broad Institute.
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Universities that have partnered with the Broad Institute to conduct large-scale surveillance testing have kept reported Covid-19 cases among students, factuly and saff low compared with other select schools. The testing, along with strict, state-level quarantine orders and low levels of community spread in the region, has helped keep infection rates at schools working with Broad below 0.2%.
Broad first planned to work with a group of Massachusetts private colleges that approached the lab in the spring. Then it added public universities around the state. Other schools in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut caught wind, and Broad soon had 108 partners and a waiting list.
The nerve center for the operation is tucked inside a large, low-slung concrete building that once served as an Anheuser-Busch beer distribution warehouse where Broad’s Genomics Platform runs an automated, licensed laboratory for genome sequencing.
The lab had never run a viral diagnostic test before March 23. Under the supervision of Stacey Gabriel, senior director of the Genomics Platform, it now regularly processes more than 70,000 tests a day—about 45,000 of them from colleges and universities—and has the capacity to go up to 100,000. Other tests come from area nursing homes and hospitals.