(Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Alx bio, used under Creative Commons license)
The State of Maryland is taking new steps to increase capacity for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment for medical workers, Gov. Larry Hogan said Friday.
Here’s a look at updates from Hogan’s latest news conference on how Maryland is using tech in the response to the pandemic:
As it seeks more testing capability, the state is entering a partnership with the Baltimore-based University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) to ramp up tests for COVID-19.
“We have invested $2.5 million in a joint partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine to provide the technology to launch a large-scale COVID-19 testing initiative which will be enable their lab to run 20,000 tests per day,” Hogan said.
The lab will ramp up to that capacity over the next few months — and will enable people to get results within 24 to 48 hours, as opposed to waiting for weeks, UMSOM said.
The ability to test patients for COVID-19 is considered a major weapon in the effort to stop the spread, since knowing who has the new coronavirus can allow them to be isolated from others and treated. But there has been a shortage nationwide. Hogan said the state has been seeking to acquire more testing kits from federal partners and private sector companies.
The initiative will be led by Dr. Clare Fraser, who directs the downtown Baltimore-based Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) and Dr. Sanford Stass who chairs the UMSOM Department of Pathology and Department of Medical and Research Technology.
“We already have the capability to perform testing in patients who are admitted to University of Maryland Medical Center to test for COVID-19,” Stass said in a statement. “This new funding initiative, however, will greatly improve our capabilities to reach deeper into the community and help provide expanded testing which is desperately needed to help bring the epidemic under control in the State of Maryland.”
The lab at IGS is being reconfigured and will process samples from patients using robotics and automation of parts of the following process, per the school’s press release:
Analyzing test samples from patients suspected of having COVID-19 is a complex multi-step process that involves first transferring a portion of the sample to an inactivation solution and extracting its RNA, which contains the virus genetic code. The RNA is then converted to DNA and amplified using the CDC recommended assay. The laboratory at the UMSOM faculty practice site ultimately determines whether the patient’s sample contains the novel coronavirus.
The lab plans to call up additional personnel to staff up to 60 people over the next several months.
“We will call in extra technicians who are currently working from home, so ramping up to a full staff could be done initially without an immediate need to hire additional employees,” Fraser said in a statement. “I am sure many of our laboratory staff would be eager to return onsite to work for such a worthwhile endeavor.”
Analysis will take place at University of Maryland Pathology Associates in downtown Baltimore, which received regulatory approval.
Along with expanding capacity to stop the spread, the larger-scale initiative could also help to ensure surveillance after social distancing measures are relaxed.
Another frequently talked-about nationwide shortage is the low supply of personal protective equipment that can protect medical workers from being exposed to the virus.
“The number one problem we have today is the lack of PPE,” Hogan said. “It’s definitely not anywhere near what it needs to be.”
In one approach to getting more available, Maryland’s Department of Transportation and FEMA are opening a new decontamination facility at BWI Airport to clean and sterilize the highly sought N95 masks. The unit, which is made by Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle, will allow 80,000 of the respirator masks to cleaned per day.
“As everyone knows, these masks are in very short supply worldwide,” Hogan said. “This newly developed technology will allow them to be reused, which will help protect our healthcare workers and those on the front lines.”
The state is also setting up a new platform, called COVID Connect, which will serve as a registry for patients who have recovered from COVID-19.
“The registry will also serve as a communication platform to share experiences and lend support to others who are coping with the recovery process,” Hogan said. “It will also provide opportunities for these recovered patients to learn about potential resources and clinical study opportunities which may contribute to scientific progress in the fight against COVID-19.”
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