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Courtesy of Jeffrey Watts/American University

A group of colleges in the Washington, D.C., metro area is collaborating on a new COVID-19 testing program that will also serve Baltimore City Public Schools.

American University and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to establish and operate a new mobile lab that they say will soon be able to process more than 50,000 tests per week. The lab will use a saliva-based test developed by UIUC researchers.

Fanta Aw, American’s vice president for campus life and inclusive excellence, said testing has been a challenge for institutions like American that don’t have medical schools. American is already doing both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing but is currently shipping tests to outside labs, with a turnaround time of 48 to 72 hours. The new mobile lab promises to reduce turnaround time to eight hours.

The program is expected to cost $25 to $32 per test depending on the volume of testing. Trained medical personnel are not needed to administer the tests, saving money for the colleges and schools.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, one of the key things has been capacity for testing,” Aw said. “How do we make sure that there’s robust testing? How do we make sure that there’s accessibility? And how do we make sure as a result of that it can lead to effective and efficient contact tracing, etc.? These things have been part of the narrative since the beginning, and testing has been a real challenge on a lot of levels.”

Andrew Flagel, president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said the consortium formed a committee last year focused on COVID testing and surveillance. “The work that we entered into was to think about how we could meet the demands of the region by expanding testing capacity, in a way that would increase accuracy, bring down costs and decrease turnaround time," he said.

Flagel said the local colleges that plan to most heavily utilize the lab at first are American, Catholic University of America, Gallaudet University and Marymount University.

American paid the deposit for setting up the lab. Aw declined to share the cost of the deposit but said the university expects to recoup it through testing over the course of 13 weeks.

The mobile lab will be parked at Gallaudet.

The Baltimore City Public Schools will also be using the lab for testing high school students. The school district announced Wednesday it would partner with the consortium to begin a weekly, asymptomatic testing program for its in-person high school learning programs. (It is partnering with a different entity to offer asymptomatic testing to elementary school students.)

“The partnership with the consortium has been incredibly helpful to us,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for Baltimore City Public Schools. “Dr. Flagel has been really helpful in helping us think about different approaches.”

Baltimore City Public Schools is already partnering with the University of Maryland Medical System for symptomatic testing. Perkins-Cohen said the district has also partnered with Maryland Medicine and Johns Hopkins Medicine to provide dedicated access to vaccines for BCPS staff.

"Trying to do in-person learning in this moment really requires thought about how to do it," she said. "Instead of everybody reinventing the wheel, we’ve been really working carefully to foster partnerships with people at the university level, other school districts, to try to learn best practices and take advantage of other partners and leverage resources that are out there."

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