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Southwell collaborates with UGA Veterinary Diagnostic Labs for COVID-19 testing
09/08/2020
(September 8, 2020, Tifton, Ga.) – In March, while the Tifton area was getting hit hard with COVID-19 cases, Dr. Jessica Beier, Medical Director of Southwell Laboratories and Medical Director of Quality and Patient Safety, was quarantined at home after returning from a vacation in Chile.

“When I got home, I was ready to activate,” said Dr. Beier. “While I was gone, we had used the CDC lab, the state lab, our usual reference lab, and all those labs were becoming overwhelmed. Their turnaround times were starting to increase, and we were looking at people potentially having to wait a week to know whether they had tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone was wondering what we were going to do next, and then I was told by our employee health director that I had traveled to a country that was considered a level three risk.

“I was quarantined at home, and it was really not a good time,” she said with a laugh. “I brought my microscope and started doing pathology from home. In the midst of all of this, I had a lot of time on my hands to think, and because I have a horse farm, I am well aware that we have a vet diagnostic lab here in Tifton that’s part of UGA. I also know that this lab here does high complexity molecular diagnostic testing because of all of the infectious disease testing they normally do on animals.”

Something clicked in Dr. Beier’s head. Why not partner with UGA and the lab that was right in her own backyard to meet the pandemic head on? Although she had no contacts with anyone at the diagnostic lab, she was able to find the email address for Dr. Hemant Naikare, Tifton Veterinary Diagnostic and Investigational Lab (TVDIL) director and Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine and reached out to him.

“I remember Dr. Beier reaching out to me on a Saturday at the end of March,” Dr. Naikare said. “She wanted to know if we could assist with COVID testing, so we started correspondence the first week of April. I told her that we had the infrastructure, and we do polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which is an essential component of processing COVID-19 tests. I explained to her that we could help, but our major hurdle was CLIA.”

CLIA stands for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, and for labs to process human samples, they must be registered and certified under CLIA.

One aspect of the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and TVDIL’s mission is service to the state. Usually, that means aiding local livestock producers, veterinarians, or companion animal owners in South Georgia—but the pandemic provided a unique situation.

“I knew that these long turnaround times were a huge problem, especially here in rural Georgia, so I took this issue to my department head, Dr. Jesse Hostetter, and CVM Dean Lisa Nolan,” said Dr. Naikare. “Dr. Beier and Southwell were in need of support, and it was clear to me that we could help. I explained that we had the equipment needed for human testing, and we had the trained personnel. It was just a matter of getting started. With the permission and the right credentials, we could definitely help out.”

The TVDIL is able to run an average of about 125 COVID-19 tests per day, many of which are sent over from Southwell’s drive-thru testing site, and these are processed usually within 24 hours. Most inpatients at Tift Regional Medical Center who need to be tested use a rapid test that is processed through the in-house laboratory there.

“We can run up to 270 tests per day without impacting our mission of animal testing. Just within the last four weeks, the TVDIL has conducted over 3,000 tests for hospitalized patients, pre-surgical patients, symptomatic patients, potentially exposed individuals, and patients and staff from various healthcare settings,” said Dr. Naikare. “Dr. Yung-Yi Mosley, Assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine has been instrumental in getting the high volume COVID-19 PCR testing workflow streamlined at the TVDIL lab.”

While the TVDIL was originally only testing samples from Southwell, they have also partnered with two other local hospital systems recently: Crisp Regional Health System in Cordele and Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie.

“COVID-19 molecular testing is still in high demand, so we hope to ease the burden on other testing labs in the region by providing rapid and accurate test results,” said Dr. Naikare. “By helping these local health systems attain a quick turnaround testing, we are able to prevent community spread in rural Georgia.”

While some veterinary diagnostic labs have pivoted to test human samples and help with turnaround times for COVID-19 testing, it is still a fraction of the laboratories in the country. According to Dr. Naikare, who estimates there are at least 65 state or university veterinary diagnostic labs in the country, as of August 7, there were only 18 labs that were testing human samples.

“We felt that we could really contribute to human testing, and so we are ahead of the curve,” said Dr. Naikare. “At UGA, ‘One Health’ is the term used to describe the intersection of human, animal, and environmental health. We are providing diagnostic solutions, and this is One Health in action.”

“I feel very lucky that we happened to be in the right town with the right lab and the right people to make this happen,” said Dr. Beier. “This has taken a lot of teamwork from everyone involved, and I think this shows how much people care about their community to work together and collaborate like this in a crisis. I am so grateful to all my staff at the TRMC lab who has helped to make this partnership work, and all of us at Southwell are grateful to Dr. Naikare and his entire team for everything they have done and continue to do.”