Mercer opens COVID-19 testing lab on campus

Mercer+University+opened+a+COVID-19+testing+laboratory+on+its+Macon+campus.+Photo+provided+by+Mercer+University+Marketing+Communications

Mercer University opened a COVID-19 testing laboratory on its Macon campus. Photo provided by Mercer University Marketing Communications

Back-to-school preparation usually involves buying textbooks, decorating a new dorm room and reuniting with friends. For Mercer University undergraduates returning to campus this fall, though, a new task was added to their list: getting tested for COVID-19.

Undergraduates were required to undergo a test prior to moving into student housing or attending class as part of Mercer’s plan to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus during the transition back to in-person operations. Mercer opened a testing laboratory on the Macon campus June 19 to facilitate these tests and more.

The lab, operated by Mercer’s School of Medicine and affiliated primary care practice Mercer Medicine, staffs three technicians and can conduct about 740 tests per day with results released within two business days, according to a university press release.

“This is really a monumental accomplishment for Mercer University that was made possible by a major team effort,” School of Medicine Department of Biomedical Sciences Chair Dr. Robert McKallip said. “For an academic institution to be able to go in two months from essentially nothing to having a high-complexity diagnostic lab up and running, it really is an unbelievable feat.”

Mercer’s testing facility is a satellite of Atlanta-based molecular and anatomical pathology laboratory Ipsum Diagnostics and is funded in part by a grant from the Griffith Family Foundation, a local organization founded by Mercer alumnus Benjamin Griffith to support nonprofits benefiting Macon-Bibb County. 

According to the press release, about $750,000 has been invested in the lab. Mercer Medicine bills a patient’s insurance provider for the test, though McKallip said no one will be denied a test if they cannot pay and that most insurance providers will cover the full cost of a test.

Mercer’s testing facility staff were trained by Ipsum Diagnostics to conduct nasal swab tests and analyze the results.

Mercer senior C. was tested at the University Center Aug. 10. She opted to remain anonymous when discussing her health. C. said the testing process was simple, private and mostly socially distant.

“Everyone in line had masks on,” she said. “I entered the U.C. and was greeted by friendly staff and my temperature was taken. I then stood in a line of about five people inside and presented my insurance card to a nurse. I was given a card with my ID number and name and given a test that I gave to a nurse who was in a gown, mask and face shield. The nurse administered the test behind a room divider for privacy. They did the nasal swab and that was it.”

However, C. said there was a delay in receiving her test results. She was told that she would get her results back within 24 hours, but more than 48 hours passed before she received her negative result.

C. said that many of Mercer’s health and safety initiatives, including testing, seem “better than other universities,” but flaws remain.

“On paper it seems to work, however, many students and professors don’t wear masks around friends or continue to go out to dinner or bars. Some classes require you to share a table with other students. Auditoriums are crammed with 100 students sometimes only a foot apart leaning over to talk to each other,” she said.

As the fall semester begins, Mercer’s lab plans to hire more technicians and staff, which McKallip said will allow the facility to process “considerably more” tests. Eventually, increased testing capacity will allow Mercer to expand its operations.

“The goal here is to serve Mercer as well as Central and rural South Georgia communities where Mercer Medicine has clinical sites,” McKallip said.

Mercer announced Friday that 103 students tested positive out of 4,229 students who were tested between July 20 to Aug. 19 across Mercer’s four campuses. Out of 263 faculty and staff members who received tests following potential exposure to COVID-19 during that time, 15 also tested positive.

A previous announcement from the university revealed that 35 students out of 316 who received tests between July 31 and Aug. 3 were positive for coronavirus. 

Residential students who test positive but cannot return home to self-isolate are able to isolate in designated campus housing with a private bedroom and private bathroom access. 

Students can make an appointment to get tested by calling Mercer Medicine at (478) 301-4111 or the Student Health Center’s 24/7 hotline at (478) 301-7425.