Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Editor's note: The Board of Regents, State of Iowa, approved the proposed expansion at its meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Since the start of the pandemic, Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) has managed to successfully adapt its space to accommodate new testing equipment and additional staff to meet the exponential growth in demand for COVID-19 testing.

As Test Iowa’s designated lab, SHL has processed about 1.6 million COVID tests since early 2020 and, with the emergence of new variants circling the globe, demand continues to skyrocket. This has required converting the building’s education conference center and training lab into a new testing area to house incoming equipment and train and house new staff.

While SHL has kept pace, the lab’s leadership knows it needs more space to increase its testing capacity, streamline workflow, keep employees safe, and be better prepared for future pandemics.

Working with the Iowa Department of Public Health, SHL has submitted a $9.2 million proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a grant to relocate the Bio-Safety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory and make other space improvements.

The proposal must also be approved by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, which will consider it at a meeting Jan. 11—12.

SHL Associate Lab Director Wade Aldous, who wrote the CDC grant proposal, said the SHL’s creative use of space has thus far met the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also resulted in a less-than-ideal configuration of workspace along the evaluation chain, from accessioning (where test kits are dropped off and catalogued) to test processing to reporting out results to clients.

“The addition of this new lab space not only will improve workflow efficiency for our employees but will better enable us to serve the needs of Iowans,” Aldous said.

One benefit of the project, Aldous said, is that it would enable SHL to consolidate its high-throughput COVID-19 testing into one location, including the testing of wastewater effluent to detect evidence of the virus in populations that share a building.

The intent of the CDC funding is to establish or expand capacity to quickly, accurately, and safely test for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and build infectious disease preparedness for future events involving other pathogens with potential for broad community spread. Beyond helping SHL manage the current pandemic, the additional space will position the lab to better respond to potential future public health threats.

“The construction will help redesign the space utilization so that the lab can be more efficient and be ready for high-volume testing in the future,” SHL Director Michael Pentella said. “The upgrade will also provide more office space so staff don’t have to share desks as much, helping reduce the risk of COVID and other respiratory virus spread within the lab itself. And it will allow for better air handling in test areas and provide more room for storage of materials used to assemble Test Iowa home kits and to analyze specimens.

“It’s a series of dominoes,” Pentella added. “But this lab will serve the state of Iowa for the long-term, not just for the current pandemic.”

Aldous said that once approved by the Board of Regents and CDC, the project is expected to take about two years.