In March 2020, Dr. Beth Plocharczyk was desperate. She was scrambling to find COVID-19 testing materials so Cayuga Health System (CHS) may begin collecting and testing samples in Tompkins County as the pandemic begins to rage.
CHS particularly needed the clear liquid that preserves nasal swabs before they are sent to the lab for testing, known as viral transport medium.
“There just wasn’t enough for everyone,” said Plocharczyk, medical director of CHS laboratories. “We were really struggling with, ‘What are we going to do?'”
She turned to Diego Dielassociate professor of virology who directs the virology laboratory of the College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Diagnostic Center, where they make their own viral transport carriers. Diel and his team provided more than 100 liters of medium to CHS so they could begin their testing program, Diel said.
“Cornell were such good working partners because at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center they are used to testing herds, and we’re really just a big herd of people in the community,” Plocharczyk said. “When you have a huge pandemic, you need a new lens to see it through, and the team at Cornell was perfect for the challenge.”
From the onset of the pandemic, Cornell leaders envisioned its COVID response with university-community collaboration as a central planning tenet. “We were fully aware that what happened on campus would impact our community and vice versa,” said Dr. Gary Koretzky ’78, vice provost for academic integration and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and leader of Cornell’s COVID response. “The overarching goal of our strategy was to protect the health of people on campus and all residents of our region. We knew the only way to do this was to work hand in hand with community leaders. »
Two years into the pandemic, the collaboration between Cornell and its community partners has continued to evolve, resulting in robust surveillance testing that is credited with saving lives across Tompkins County and the Finger Lakes region. The Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory (CCTL) partnered with the CHS testing facility in late 2021. Together, the lab has one of the largest testing capabilities in the state and, on 18 April, administered his 2 millionth test.
“The capacity and efficiency of the lab was really critical in keeping the number of positive cases below average compared to other parts of New York and even the country,” Diel said.
Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said he need not worry about the availability of testing throughout the pandemic. “While many other counties in the state struggled to find access to testing, we never had that problem,” he said.
Nearly 300,000 residents of surrounding counties had their samples tested at CCTL — 15% of more than 2 million tests, Koretzky said. “Testing allowed people from Onondaga County to Schuyler County and others to appropriately isolate themselves and mitigate the spread,” he said. “It certainly saved lives.”
The collaboration went both ways. CHS oversees CCTL as the region’s federally licensed laboratory, through its Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) license and certification by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“We recognized immediately when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 reached the West Coast that we needed to dramatically increase our ability to test large numbers of people in the community,” said Dr. Martin Stallone, President and Chief Operating Officer. management of CHS. “As a result, together with our local partners at Tompkins County Department of Administration and Health, Cornell University, Ithaca College and others, we have opened one of the first mass testing sites in New York State. This space has allowed us to evolve to meet the needs of the community. This decision quickly set the tone for our COVID response and reflects positively on our entire community.
Under CHS certification, CCTL and CHS initially operated separate test facilities, with Cornell’s lab supporting CHS overflow, for approximately five months. In the summer of 2021, it became clear that it would be more efficient to combine the labs at one site and use the most efficient workflow — the one developed at Cornell, Diel said.
While the CHS primarily tested saliva samples, the CCTL was designed to test nasal swabs, called upper respiratory tract samples. But overflow CHS saliva samples require special equipment and an extra processing step, and Cornell didn’t have the space or equipment to process them effectively. “The saliva samples were actually preprocessed at the CHS lab in Brown Road and then transported to Cornell for testing,” Diel said. “By moving the testing lab to Brown Road at the end of November, we were able to consolidate all sample processing, receiving and testing into one location.”
Added Lorin WarnickPh.D. ’94, Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine, “It was really bringing the two together that gave the university and the community the ability to meet the demand for testing last fall and to through the omicron surge.”
Communication between Cornell, the Tompkins County Health Department and the CHS was constant and crucial, he said. And he praised the efforts of hundreds of people in these organizations, not only in the labs but also in information technology, human resources, facilities, accounting, administrative support and the legal field. “It was really a lot of different teams that came together to make this possible,” Warnick said.
This collaboration means Ithaca and surrounding regions have laid the foundation to successfully deal with future pandemics, Kruppa said.
“We now know we can do it,” he said. “It put our community in a position, with the help of Cornell and Cayuga Health Systems, to know that if there is a new disease in the future, we have a roadmap to deal with it quickly.”