The Student Health Clinic is ready for COVID-19

As the pandemic continues, Georgia State is open for COVID-19 testing on every campus. But its capacity to test — an estimated 5,000 tests per week — overshadows the number of patients that get tested — between 400 and 500 weekly. Meanwhile, the rest of the state continues to find its footing in the pandemic.

If students wish to test for COVID-19 on campus, they must schedule their appointments in advance through the Student Health Patient Portal. Telehealth appointments are usually required beforehand, though some students report having COVID-19 tested without one.

Upon arrival, they must volunteer information such as their home address, phone number and email. They also need to sign and date a form so that the clinic can send them the test results.

The test itself takes only a few seconds. Saliva isn’t reliable for detecting the virus early, so the clinic uses an NPH swab. The swab is a long plastic rod that the nurse inserts in the patient’s nostrils for a few seconds and then pulls it out.

Julia Hilliard, director of the Georgia State Viral Immunology Center, said the laboratory uses the rt-qPCR testing method. In a nutshell, it uses viral RNA the raw viral genetic material) to detect the number of copies of the virus in the sample. A test usually takes 40 cycles; the less coronavirus in a sample, the more cycles it takes to detect it.

The Logistics

From Aug. 15 to Sept. 11, the Student Health Clinic conducted 758 tests, only 15 of which, or 2%, were positive. On average, there were about 28 tests per day.

Georgia State doesn’t struggle with capacity. Hilliard said that Georgia State could run up to 5,000 tests a week but only has to run 400 to 500 tests. She also said that tests usually only take a few hours to complete. The lab tries to return results as soon as the samples get there.

This is because the amount of eligible patients is far lower — approximately 53,000. Hilliard explained that Georgia State is authorized to test samples from students, but not outside samples. That would require approval from the Georgia Department of Public Health before being tested. 

She said that the university puts students’ health at the top of testing priorities, with more focus on students who reside in dormitories and who participate in sports. However, there isn’t any Georgia State-sanctioned testing for faculty and staff yet.

In the summer, the rest of the state struggled to meet the demands of testing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a strain on supplies as the state grappled with rising case numbers. In the two weeks before the article was published, there were 24,186 cases.

While Georgia’s capacity to test is now much greater than it was in the spring, there are still hiccups in the system. Some have to wait weeks for their test results. Furthermore, the COVID-19 laboratory Quest Diagnostics database was breached, releasing many patients’ information.

“Testing shortcomings [placed] new urgency on mass-producing so-called antigen tests and other rapid tests that can cheaply deliver results in minutes while someone waits,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stated.

The Innovation

Georgia State’s research division has worked to address the concern of efficient tests.

In the same month, Georgia State received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which hoped that the university’s researchers would find a way to detect COVID-19 in patients. Georgia State also received a $100,000 grant in August to learn more about the virus’s replication.

Electrochemistry researcher Gangli Wang, in collaboration with professor and virologist Mukesh Kumar, developed a way of finding traces of COVID-19 using RNA. However, Wang noted that it would be hard to detect smaller quantities of the virus.

Another Georgia State biology alumnus Rodney James Nash has made a similar advancement in making COVID-19 tests more efficient and reliable. His method had a 99% accuracy rate and a 96% sensitivity rate when tested on 500 samples.

However, Hilliard said that her team doesn’t practice these experimental methods of testing samples for COVID-19. The laboratory uses the state’s standards and has less leeway than a research laboratory. 

The FDA would first have to pass these methods. Then, staff would have to be adequately trained for the procedures and machines calibrated.

An experimental lab technique might be useful in an emergency, but even then, the methods would again have to be approved for use when it’s no more.

Even without new methods, Georgia State stays on top of its COVID-19 testing. The lab waits to test thousands of more patients and for the pandemic’s resolution.

Every campus has white tents where COVID-19 testing occurs:

  • COVID-19 testing tents can be found near University Commons at the Atlanta campus. Testing also occurs at the Counseling Center and Patton Dining Hall. Students can also test at the Fulton County Health Department and the Center for Health and Rehabilitation.
  • Near the Clarkston campus, Ethne Health and the Clarkston Community Health Center provide free COVID-19 testing.
  • In Alpharetta, students can get tested at the Fulton County Board of Health or on campus.
  • In Newton, students can get tested at Walmart on or off campus.
  • In Dunwoody, students can get tested on campus. The DeKalb County Board of Health used to host testing at Kingswood Church but has closed testing there as of June 29. The Board closed testing at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church on August 18 due to a low volume of tests at the location.