New Castle County wants to invest $5 million in federal CARES Act funding to create a COVID-19 diagnostic testing lab on Delaware State University's Wilmington Campus, which aims to provide same-day test results.
"We want our COVID-19 testing capacity to increase; we don't want to ever turn anyone away today or in the future because we don't have enough testing capacity," said County Executive Matt Meyer. "We want to process tests more efficiently. People want tests faster; they want results that are more reliable, and we want tests to be less expensive [that] enables us to do more tests, getting a better deal for taxpayers."
New Castle County received its own share of nearly $323 million in CARES Act funding, separate from federal funds the state received. Together, the two have spent millions of dollars to provide Delawareans with free COVID-19 testing, with results, largely, being processed out-of-state. Meyer's proposal, if council approves it, could change that.
The next-generation genomics lab will be housed inside 5,600 sq. ft. of unused space in the existing armory reserve structure on DSU's campus on Kirkwood Highway near Marshallton. It aims to be up and running, processing its first tests within four to five weeks. Once up and running in the early new year, Dr. Derrick Scott, an assistant professor of biological sciences at DSU, said the lab will have capacity for 1,000 RT-PCR tests per day with tight turnaround times.
"If we get samples in the morning, we'll have those that day," said Dr. Scott. "I couldn't imagine it taking more than the next day."
The testing protocol will be the Yale-based, saliva model which allows technicians to skip the costly and labor-intensive extraction process.
Meyer said as the lab builds capacity, if demand is there, they'll consider setting up test sites that run directly to the DSU lab.
In-house diagnostic testing will also, ultimately save money. Meyer said, in partnership with the state, they're paying between $90 and $150 per test with Curative. At this new lab, tests could cost between $1 and $5.
"There's obviously, going to be, over time, huge cost savings," said Meyer.
DSU President Tony Allen touted New Castle County's proposed investment; the county also provided seed money for DSU's testing protocol with Testing for America. The university administered 30,000 tests at approximately $50 per test. The school has a positivity rate of 0.3%, according to Allen.
"It enables us to join in the fight, most notably, in support of our neighbors and community members in the state of Delaware. It is true that it builds our capacity as it relates to COVID testing, but also as it relates to other infectious diseases, so over the long-term, this can be and will be a hub for the region, which we believe is important," said Allen. "We have to be a part of the solution and this is one unique and bold opportunity...to help us do that just that."
Tests conducted at DSU are currently returned in up to 36 hours.
"This will be a much more of an immediate reaction for us, and it will help the broader community," said Allen.
DSU officials said the lab will be a source of good-paying jobs in the science field and will provide public health learning opportunities for students.
"We're going to have students there as well, graduate students, and the hope is to expand into research and to add that research branch along with the diagnostic capability," said Scott.
After the pandemic, both Meyer and Allen said the lab will adapt to conduct a host of different diagnostic testing for vendors like ChristianaCare.
"We think it's going to be a key operator for fighting infectious disease more broadly, so not just COVID, again, that's the attraction of it, that there's a moment right now that we're dealing with that's unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime, but we also know that being able to combat infectious diseases and having the research capacity and clinical capacity to do that in a regular fashion is very important. Particularly as it relates to location, being able to have that in-house in the state of Delaware will put us ahead of the game as we get through other situations of this ilk," said Allen.
Allen said the county's investment helps them renovate the space and buy equipment needed to conduct diagnostic testing. After that, operations will become an ongoing part of DSU's budget.