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'Nobody else is doing testing like we're doing testing:' A behind the scenes look at UF Health COVID-19 testing

Dr. Jennifer Hunt said they used to ask for six months to develop a test. In March, they made a COVID-19 test in a week and now they process thousands a day.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the pandemic inches closer to its one year mark, people are trying to find ways to live life again safely. 

Some students at the University of Florida are back on campus for in-person classes and many are even living on campus, yet, the school is seeing only a two percent positive COVID-19 rate.

Pathologists at UF Health say their constant testing is helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus. 

“Nobody else in the country is doing testing like we are doing testing," says Dr. Jennifer Hunt, Chair of Pathology, Laboratory Medicine and Immunology at UF Health.

She says at maximum they can run about 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day. That's 208 tests every hour. 

This lab has been busy since March and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. Hunt says they run the tests for students and faculty at UF and as well as patients of UF Health.

“We do a lot of tests in order to find a few positives," Hunt explained. "If we find that one positive person that didn’t know they were positive, maybe we find them a day or two before they have a lot of symptoms, (it) prevents an entire transmission especially in the student population that could trickle out and hit a lot of people unknowingly.”

Testing is a tedious process.

Some of the prep has to be done manually by laboratory professionals. Many of the samples they handle are saliva samples. A lab tech uses a vibrating machine to make the sample homogenous. They can only do about four samples on that machine at a time.

Other technicians are removing caps from samples and getting them ready for the machine.

These steps may appear simple, but they are crucial to accuracy. They rotate positions throughout the day. It’s a familiar cycle for the lab staff. 

Director of the Molecular Lab at UF Dr. Petr Starostik says the speed at which they process tests is a product of the pandemic, but the testing technology is nothing new.

“This testing is using methodology that has been in the field used for the last 3 years," Starostik said. "So it’s like old school for me.”

Students are heading back to UF with more in-person classes than the fall. Some groups of students will have to test every 14 days.

The laboratory scientists believe they have peaked at about 5,000 tests per day, but if they need to do more they say they’re prepared. 

All eyes are on the lab as they outperform themselves time and time again.

“We have never had this level of public notoriety before in pathology," Hunt said. 

She says they used to ask for six months to develop a new test for a virus, but in March they were able to create a COVID-19 test in about a week.

“In medical school, everything seems straight forward and it seems like everything you needed to know is in some book but in reality in medicine, we’ve had to change and adapt daily practically," said Hunt. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity," Starostik said. "It will advance research a lot because now there is a lot of money going into this field.”

He says the focus on pathology has made them have years worth of progress in merely months. 

Starostik says the COVID-19 test is tedious but not difficult to process, but running thousands a day creates a challenge. Accuracy is at the forefront of what they do.

“Every single person who is pipetting a sample or looking at a test tube and checking a name, we know that there is a patient behind that sample and that somebody’s life is affected based on the result that we give them," Hunt said. 

This lab can give people results in 48 to 72 hours, sometimes even sooner. 

If you want to know more about the University of Florida's COVID-19 testing protocols, read here.