PSU Opens On-Campus COVID Screening Laboratory

Mike Son

Plymouth State’s COVID-19 health procedures are among the most comprehensive in higher education, and the University has just inaugurated a new facility to provide even greater flexibility and protection. The COVID-19 Screening Institute at Plymouth State University (CSI@PSU), slated to go live early in 2021, gives PSU the capability to conduct very accurate, quick turnaround, on-campus testing at any time.

The University’s high level of safety is a product of numerous protocols, including required physical distancing, cloth face coverings, and reduced class sizes. Every week, COVID-19 testing takes place Monday through Wednesday for all members of the campus community in the Bank of New Hampshire Field House, with results provided by Quest Diagnostics. This already comprehensive regimen is now supplemented by the CSI, which will augment the Quest testing.

“The CSI is set up to do targeted groups, with the goal of cluster outbreak prevention,” says Professor Mike Son of the University’s microbiology discipline. Potential examples might include an athletic team that traveled to an away competition where a virus outbreak is subsequently detected, or a residence hall group in which a student develops symptoms. The new facility has the capacity to conduct up to 300 tests per week and can be scaled upwards to handle more if needed.

While the Field House testing typically yields results within two or three days, CSI results are available nine hours after testing. Son cautions that speedy CSI testing should not be confused with what’s commonly referred to as “rapid testing,” which are antigen-based tests. “They detect virus proteins, similar to how pregnancy tests work, but the great benefit of our system is that it’s a lot more sensitive and more accurate than those and other traditional systems.”

Any CSI tests that come back “presumptive positive” will trigger further testing, along with PSU’s established protocols for quarantine and/or isolation as needed.

CSI@PSU features dedicated equipment and supplies set up in a separate area of the Boyd Science Center’s laboratory, including an automated droplet generator, thermal cycler, and droplet reader, which together prepare the individual patient sample reactions and will ultimately detect SARS-CoV2 RNA if present. COVID testing will take place only when the lab is not in use for other purposes and features Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR) technology, a highly sensitive method that leads to greater accuracy and sensitivity.   

“It’s perfect,” says Son. “Given our size and needs, this works beautifully.”

Son’s advanced level of training and experience is key to the operation. “The technique we’re using is rather delicate, very sensitive,” explains the bacteriologist, who conducts cholera research at PSU and whose background also includes work with RNA and infectious diseases.

Plymouth State students have benefited from the expertise of Son and other faculty members since the pandemic hit. “COVID started in the spring when I was teaching Plagues and People, and students were very curious,” says Son. The longstanding General Education course’s curriculum already included examination of the 1918 flu pandemic, and Son quickly added discussion of the current crisis. “We’re in a live pandemic that we’re all a part of,” says Son. “To be able to talk about it and teach students about it in their courses is a very unique opportunity.”

Son also teaches microbiology courses for discipline majors and nursing students. “The work I’m doing in the new CSI lab is more relevant to those courses, in which students are learning some of the basics in virology,” he says. “PSU is in a very good position to be contributing to the education of students in such a real-time manner.”

“At PSU it’s awesome that we get this opportunity to learn what COVID testing is like behind the scenes,” says Katie Townsend ’22, a biochemistry major. “This lets me understand the science behind the testing.”

Planning for the CSI began in June, when the University was evaluating numerous pathways to safe reopening. Professor Son has made it a top priority ever since.

“This really gets me excited—for a school our size to have this ability is absolutely phenomenal,” says Son. “The work that the University administration has done and the support it has provided, starting with President Birx and all the way down, has been great. I don’t know of any other school the size of PSU that has this capability.” “You have all these frontline workers, healthcare workers, doing amazing things—the police, fire department, doctors, and the nurses,” he continues. “I’ve got my family, my two kids, Isabella and Isaac, and I just want to be able to do my part and be a productive member of society and help out where I can with what I know.”