Baylor's Science Lab at the Front Lines of COVID-19 Testing
by Barbara Kennedy
As COVID-19 began creating testing backlogs in labs across the country, Baylor School faculty member and research scientist Dr. Elizabeth Forrester was determined to find a solution for Hamilton County and immediately reached out to her colleague, Dr. Dawn Richards, to formulate a plan.
Within days, the two developed a testing protocol using the equipment in Baylor’s molecular research laboratory that cut the average test down to less than 24 hours in a process that was taking as many as seven days. Mary Catherine Robbins, Baylor’s Health Center director, was instrumental in establishing a partnership with Hamilton County. “The question wasn’t, ‘How can we do this?’ It was, ‘How can we not do this,” said Forrester.
On March 25, 2020, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced that the molecular research lab at Baylor School had been certified as a clinical lab to test COVID-19 samples and would be leased by the county to help with efforts to diagnose and prevent the spread of the virus. “It’s truly a remarkable thing that Baylor is doing,” Mayor Coppinger told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that day. “It’s the best example I can think of where a private and public partnership will do something to help the community be safer.”
Their work was featured in national media, including the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, and provided all three Hamilton County hospital systems and community organizations a rapid testing option and increased local capacity for testing significantly. Test specimens were collected each morning at local hospitals, doctors’ offices, community organizations, and drive-through testing sites and brought to the Baylor lab. At the project’s launch, the lab was able to conduct about 65 tests daily, giving hospital workers and patients priority. As more equipment and supplies became available, the testing capacity grew to 300-500 per day. Grace McKenney ’18 joined the team for administrative support. By June 10, the Baylor lab had completed over 14,000 tests, and Hamilton County notified the school that it would be ending the contract (see related story on p. 20). When students and faculty return to campus in the fall, Baylor will be the only area school – and perhaps the only school in the country – that will have the ability to test COVID-19 samples and with expedited results.