By Erica Howell

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

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

"During the entire pandemic, ODU did not have a single major outbreak of COVID among students," said Morris Foster, vice president for research. "Our testing capability arguably enabled us to contain any potential outbreak before it could spread."

Now, with the most recent surge waning, the lab is poised to transition to other diagnostic testing.

"This is a cutting-edge 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 on-campus testing capabilities. They worked with representatives from the Office of Risk Management, Student Health Services, the COVID Care Team, Student Engagement and Enrollment Services, Environmental Health and Safety and the College of Health Sciences to assess what actions would be necessary.

Once it became clear that testing would be critical, Van Lunen approached Harold Riethman, chair of Medical Diagnostic & Translational Sciences Department, with the idea for a molecular lab on campus.

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 obtain high-complexity Clinical Laboratory Improvements Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 certification without a medical school affiliation. With a lot of hard work, collaboration and heart, the Monarch Molecular Lab was born, giving the University the ability to welcome students back to campus.

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

"The heart of any university is made up of its people," Van Lunen said. "Our faculty, staff and students volunteered the precious gift of their time to stand up the testing center and laboratory in response to the needs of the University."

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

From Aug. 27, 2021, through March 3, the lab conducted 18,720 tests; 17,215 were negative. Tests are administered from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Fridays. The lab is sometimes open later to process late-arriving tests and to thoroughly clean and sanitize.

"The working environment in the lab can be high stress, but the staff is resilient and is able to quickly change the work to respond to demand and new variants," Leathers said. They were able to prepare for the influx of testing when the omicron variant emerged late in 2021.

ODU's COVID testing has become a well-oiled machine. Students, faculty and staff can make an appointment or walk into the testing center at the Jim Jarrett Athletic Administration Building annex. Nurses with Premier Healthcare Services, contracted by the University, perform the tests. The 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 to students, faculty and staff, and the lab has a freezer that meets the Pfizer vaccine requirements, as well as a refrigerator that meets the Moderna requirements.

Early on, the team worked with technical support professionals from Information Technology Services (ITS) to set up a temporary testing center in Chartway Arena. Laptops and printers were set up, and the COVID dashboard was created. The lab reports results through software utilized by Student Health Services.

Lyttle said the testing lab has been Student Health Services' best asset. Results are usually available within five hours, and Student Health Services is then able to contact students.

"We have the fastest turnaround time of anywhere I've worked," added Shamir Hines-Battle, a technologist.

When the lab opened, testing was done manually. But just a few months in, the cobas® 6800 arrived. The diagnostic machine runs 188 tests at a time in less than three hours, which freed staff to do more testing.

"We talk about the equipment like it's our child," Garcia said.

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

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."

Because of its CLIA certification, the lab 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 Telehealth Innovation, Education and Research.

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, noted she's proud to be part of an effort that's made such an impact. "The Monarch Molecular Lab is a good way to keep ODU safe, provides peace of mind to students and keeps us open safely," she said.

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

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