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Gianforte Tours MSU's COVID-19 Student Testing Site, Analysis Lab

Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Seth Walk, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Montana State University in Bozeman, walks Congressman Greg Gianforte through the lab's process of testing samples for COVID-19 on Sept. 1, 2020

Congressman Greg Gianforte on Sept. 1 toured Montana State University’s new COVID-19 testing site for students, as well as a lab that tests hundreds of samples from around the state in a day.

Next to a big white tent at Bobcat Stadium, Director of Emergency Management Haylee Gerow says students with COVID-19 symptoms can walk or drive up for a nasal swab and be on their way in about three minutes.

She says they’ve swabbed around 10 students per day since it opened Aug. 27 at noon. On Aug. 31 this week, that number bumped up to around 30.

"We keep about three to five employees here at the site, and we believe that we could administer up to 100 swabs. With more staffing, we could administer more swabs per day if we have the resources and the materials to do so," Gerow said.

Rachel Cramer
MSU Student COVID-19 testing site next to Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, August 28, 2020.

Swabs are shipped to the state health department, which then coordinates where they’ll be sent to be tested.

Gerow says MSU students have been getting their test results back in 24 to 48 hours. If they have COVID-19, they're contacted by the university health provider or another provider who sent them to the testing site.

MSU has said it will not release student case counts to the public. The Gallatin City County Health Department will release the number of cases associated with the Bozeman campus on a weekly basis. Infections are counted in a patient’s county of residence.

Jason Carter, MSU’s Vice President of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education, says the university wants to expand testing in the near future, including students without symptoms.

"We haven't gotten to the point of asymptomatic surveillance yet. But Hayley's collecting a lot of information across campus and we're prioritizing some of that. We hope to do some asymptomatic surveillance in coming weeks," Carter said.

The new testing site is in addition to testing already available by appointment at MSU’s University Health Partners in the Swingle Health Center on campus.

The MSU Symptomatic Student Testing Center is possible due to $20 million in federal CARES Act funding that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock provided to the Montana University System on Aug. 6. MSU received approximately $6.5 million of that funding and, in addition to the MSU Symptomatic Student Center, will hire contact tracers and case managers who will work cooperatively with the Gallatin City County Health Department to help students.

Across campus in a brightly lit lab, Seth Walk, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, shows Congressman Greg Gianforte how they process coronavirus samples.

Walk: I can show you what our workflow looks like

Gianforte: OK. Perfect.

Several glass and metal vials sit inside a blue machine.
Rachel Cramer
A thermocycler, pictured here, cycles the temperature of a sample to copy small amounts of genetic material of the novel coronavirus to a detectable level.

Walk: So this is sort of our clean lab, we call it. This is. We don't do any sample processing in this lab, but we do bring a product over in these machines over here.

Walk says his lab processes 500 to 700 samples a day. They come from the state health department, mostly from surveillance testing sites across Montana.

Robotic arms prep the samples for a process that replicates the genetic material of the virus to a level where it can be detected.

This is called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

"It's the gold standard right now in the field for diagnostics," Walk said.

Outside the lab, Republican Congressman Gianforte, who’s running in the gubernatorial race this fall against Mike Cooney, says building out the state’s testing capacity by working with MSU makes a lot of sense. He says he’s also encouraged researchers around the world are making progress on three different vaccines for COVID-19.

"It's important we have diagnostic testing to know if someone has the virus or doesn't have the virus. But the fact that maybe by the end of this year or early next year, we'll have vaccines at scale for those particular frontline health workers and others that are maybe vulnerable to an infection that would have severe consequences,” Gianforte said.

Bozeman Health is one of more than 120 sites around the world carrying out late phase clinical trials for one of those vaccines. It’s developers, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and BioNTech, a German biotech company, are leading the study.