UVA Health Independently Develops New COVID-19 Tests

March 20, 2020 by

UVA Hospital arial photo set against background of the city of Charlottesville (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Thanks to a determined, whirlwind effort on the part of a team of physicians and collaboration and support from across the University of Virginia community, UVA Health now is now administering its own COVID-19 tests.

Shortly after the pandemic began spreading across the U.S. weeks ago, UVA Health Laboratory’s efforts to stand up COVID-19 testing hit a wall in the form of severe national shortages of critical reagents needed for the tests.

A call quickly went out to basic research laboratories in the Health System and across the University to find needed reagents and technology. It was answered by an immediate outpouring of donations that enabled UVA Health to develop its own testing and deploy it much sooner than having to wait on commercial supply chains. Testing began on Wednesday.

The new testing capability allows UVA Health to more broadly and immediately advance its service to the public during this crisis and will provide health officials a better idea of the spread of COVID-19 in the Charlottesville area.

Two of the physicians who were instrumental in developing the new UVA test were Dr. Mendy Poulter and Dr. Amy Mathers. Along with many other medical team members at UVA Health, they have worked tirelessly on the test development and in preparing operations for COVID-19’s impact, and because of their intense work demands were not able to step away for interviews on Thursday.

“This was truly a remarkable team effort across the entire institution at an incredibly challenging time,” Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. K. Craig Kent said. “It was amazing to see how swiftly everyone rose to the challenge and made this happen in order to serve the community during this time of need. As someone new to UVA Health, I’m extremely proud of our team and thankful for the support across the University.”

“Across everything else that was happening, a very deliberate decision was made by leadership to make this a top priority,” said Dr. Arturo Saveedra, chief of ambulatory strategy and operations and chair of the Department of Dermatology.

“Often we live in lines of reporting structure in complex institutions, and this is probably the first time I’ve noticed a real matrix where people were less concerned with chain of command and more concerned with getting things done for a real common goal,” he added. “We stopped thinking about being doctors or nurses or IT people or secretaries or researchers and we actually just became citizens of the Health System to just get it done.”

The increase in area testing as a result of the development of the tests is likely to result in a spike in the number of positive cases in the coming days. A major limitation of understanding the spread of the virus to date has been the lack of available testing. UVA is now one of the few institutions across the country that has engineered its own test so that the diagnosis can be more readily made.

UVA’s experts say they expect to have sufficient testing capacity to support all inpatient testing at UVA Hospital and all UVA clinics. For the immediate future, testing will be performed on patients with signs, symptoms and histories deemed by health care providers to be at high risk for COVID-19 infection. The UVA labs are working hard to build on their success and ramp up to support broader community testing and are working with state and federal officials to obtain the resources needed to do so.

The Virginia Department of Health on Thursday announced three new positive cases in the Thomas Jefferson Health District, including a UVA student living off-Grounds in Albemarle County who is believed to have contracted the virus during recent international travel. The student is receiving care and in isolation.

The health district will conduct thorough contact investigations for any positive COVID-19 cases, which includes contacting individuals who may have been exposed.

Anticipating an increase in positive results in part due to the increased testing, UVA will transition from emailing the community about individual cases and will instead use its coronavirus website as the central location for all information, including positive results. The Virginia Department of Health is also no longer issuing individual news release notifications, and has instead suggested visiting the VDH website, which is updated daily.

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