COVID-19 testing team looks to expand capacity in 2021

Mother and child at coronavirus testing center

The team behind the University of Oregon’s COVID-19 Monitoring and Assessment Program (MAP) is reflecting on a tumultuous, but highly successful 2020 and looking ahead to 2021.

Last March, a team of researchers, student employees, project managers and lab technicians, a group that had never worked together before on a project of this scale, banded together to create Lane County’s largest testing program to help suppress the spread of COVID-19 on campus and throughout the surrounding community.

“Although we are still in the midst of a pandemic and have hard work ahead, the MAP initiative has accomplished everything it set out to do, and that is something to celebrate,” said Leslie Leve, interim executive director of the Monitoring and Assessment Program and a professor in the Prevention Science Institute and College of Education. “It’s allowed us to track the prevalence of the disease on campus and in the community and, by identifying positive cases early, helped prevent outbreaks on campus.”

When the program was first conceived, it was not a foregone conclusion that it would actually work. Other universities were launching their own testing programs with varying degrees of success, and UO did not have the lab equipment or certifications necessary to conduct this type of testing.

“We couldn’t have done this work without close partnerships, both inside and outside of UO. Lane County Public Health, and particularly Dr. Patrick Luedtke, has been an integral partner in this effort,” said Leve, referring to Lane County’s senior public health officer.

One of the reasons for the monitoring team’s success is that regular surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals can help identify people who have been infected very early in their virus progression, before they have had much opportunity to unknowingly spread the virus to others in their social bubbles. This helped keep the campus spread rate low and prevented outbreaks or “superspreader” events.  

While the team agrees that there is much more work to do, important milestones have been reached. In December, the team surpassed 25,000 tests performed just since the beginning of the fall term. This month, the team is testing nearly 3,000 on-campus students twice, allowing them to safely move back into residence halls.

The team also can now collect and process samples from up to 4,000 people a week, establishing the largest fixed testing operation in Lane County. Growth will continue with additional lab capacity , thanks to a grant from the Oregon Health Authority for the purchase of robotic and molecular testing equipment to outfit a new laboratory in the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact.

“The significant increase in laboratory capacity through this state grant will allow us to process many times the samples per day than we were already doing in the fall,” said co-science lead Bill Cresko, a professor of biology and executive director of UO’s Data Science Initiative. “This will be a huge benefit to UO, our community and the state.”

Testing will remain a crucial component of the UO’s coronavirus playbook as vaccinations roll out across the state.

“The onramp here has been incredibly steep, and there has been tremendous effort — tireless really — put in by so many across the entire university, from planning to facilities to housing to the student health center to the MAP team members themselves,” said Patrick Phillips, UO’s provost and senior vice president. “While it is now clear both here and on a national scale that the health and safety procedures that we have implemented have driven the risk of on-campus transmission to a very, very low level, testing is a critical component of our ongoing success.”

Public health experts anticipate that testing will be needed through most of 2021.

The Oregon Health Authority is managing the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the state. The UO is working with state and local public health officials and has offered both technical and logistical support as they develop vaccine distribution plans. It is not yet known when the vaccine will be available to students and staff.

COVID-19 testing is available for all asymptomatic UO employees, students and residents of Lane County age 3 and older. Preregistration is required; appointments are on a first-come, first-served basis. To see a list of upcoming dates and access the registration portal, visit uoregon.edu/testing.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications