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UC Santa Barbara opens a certified clinical COVID-19 lab on campus

Photo from UCSB
The UCSB COVID-19 testing lab is running between 3,000 and 5,000 tests per week. Personnel also follow up with contact tracing and medical advice.

Experts say efficient testing and tracing are key components to limiting the spread of COVID-19. With this in mind, UC Santa Barbara has opened a certified clinical COVID lab on campus for students, faculty and staff.

“One of the most important advantages is time. Time is everything in COVID,” said Dr. Stuart Feinstein from UCSB.

Feinstein managed the effort to get the new COVID-19 lab up and running, and he did it in a few short months.

“The decision was made on campus to set up an annex laboratory to the UCSB student health laboratory and that would be just to deal with COVID,” Feinstein said.

The new lab is CLIA certified – meaning it meets clinical standards for diagnostic testing. Feinstein said it can handle the campus’ high volume of tests with quick turnaround time.

“When we do tests on campus, we get the results sometimes in four or five hours, at worst the next day,” Feinstein said .

A lab of this caliber, with trained personnel, enables the university to react quickly to the needs of the campus community. The university is even prepared, Feinstein said, to sequence for the new variants of virus now emerging.

“Based on what’s happening everywhere else, it would be very surprising to me if we didn’t have at least some variants in our community,” Feinstein said.

Currently, everyone on campus must be tested once a week. Though most students attend classes remotely, some students live in the dorms, and others visit campus for research or work. Free testing is also available for UCSB students living in Isla Vista.

“We realized early on that what was really the highest risk of virus transmission was not necessarily what’s going on on-campus, but what’s going on off campus,” said Dr. Laura Polito, associate medical director for Student Health.

Polito said the lab is running between 3,000 and 5,000 tests per week. Personnel also follow up with contact tracing and medical advice.

She said many students who test positive are asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms, which means they can spread the virus without knowing they have it.

“The most common symptom we’ve seen is actually the loss of taste or smell. That seems to be very common in this age group,” Polito said.

As for how students are contracting the virus, she said patterns from the lab align with current research linking outbreaks to super spreader events and travel.

In the fall of 2021, if UCSB’s approximately 25,000 students return to campus, and depending on the rate of vaccines, the quantity of tests will be much higher.

“Things will certainly scale up the further we get into this and, at the moment, nobody really knows what’s going to be going on in the fall," Polito said.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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