County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Wednesday that Baylor School science researchers have stepped up to convert the school's lab for coronavirus testing. He said there would be a four-hour turnaround and eventually some 300 tests per day can be performed.
The county mayor said swabs would be collected each morning at Erlanger, CHI Memorial and Parkridge hospitals and taken to the Baylor lab. The testing starts Thursday morning.
He said the priority would be patients in those hospitals with symptoms of the deadly new strain of virus. The second priority would be hospital staff, and the third would be first responders.
No individual would be going to the Baylor School campus for any testing.
County Mayor Coppinger said the initiative gives Hamilton County a tremendous impetus in the coronavirus fight by greatly speeding up testing and allowing medical providers to focus on treatment and the health department to much better detect trends in the spread of the virus.
He said it also will "help us not to burn through scarce PPE (personal protection equipment) because medical personnel will know much more quickly who actually has coronavirus.
The county mayor said it is expected that the money spent by the county on the lab - up to $1.5 million - would later be reimbursed by state or federal government.
It will be certified as a clinical lab, he said.
County Mayor Coppinger said a courier will pick up the samples from the three hospitals each morning and deliver them to the gate at the Baylor School campus, where a lab worker will pick them up and take them for testing.
He said, concerning certification of the lab, that the FDA "handed us off to the state." He said Rep. Robin Smith was instrumental in getting state approval.
Of the Baylor researchers, he said, "They're phenomenal. We're very fortunate to have them in Hamilton County. We're also very fortunate that Baylor reached out to us."
He said this is a good setup since "they're here and they're not backed up. Other labs are overwhelmed."
The County Commission barely had a quorum to approve the new program. Coming to the courthouse for the vote were Chip Baker, Warren Mackey, Greg Martin, Tim Boyd and David Sharpe.
After the vote, County Mayor Coppinger said, "Now we will start the testing as quickly as possible." He said the lab would initially do about 65 tests per day. It can do much more after more equipment that is on the way arrives.
Dr. John Blake will be the medical director of the lab. The county health department will oversee the unique testing program and the county technically will be leasing the Baylor lab.
Commissioner Tim Boyd, who was wearing a mask at the session, called it "a superb example of how county government can step up to act in extraordinary circumstances. It's remarkable that it has been able to react this fast and this efficiently." Commissioner Boyd said he was wearing the mask because he is required to on his job. He is employed by an Italian-owned company.
Commissioner Baker, who was acting as chairman, added, "If this isn't national headlines, it should be. We have a high school that is leading in one of the big issues facing the nation."
County Mayor Coppinger praised the five commissioners for showing up "for this very important business. I know it's a stretch getting here."
He said he had been working closely for about 10 days with Jimmy Hudson of the Baylor School board on the prospect for the testing. He said there was a meeting of about 30 people on Sunday night in connection with the unlikely venture.
County Mayor Coppinger said one way that South Korea had been able to help stop the spread of coronavirus was by a robust testing program.
He said under the current U.S. situation tests may take up to seven days and "be sent off to North Carolina or somewhere."
The county mayor said that from the start Baylor researchers Dr. Elizabeth Forrester and Dr. Dawn Richards had insisted "that they could do this." He said he and others eventually were convinced that they could. He said, "Now it's an exciting day for everybody."
He said County Attorney Rheubin Taylor and attorney Rick Hitchcock had been working around the clock for two days on the testing contract.
County Mayor Coppinger said it remains a fact that "everybody doesn't need to be tested. People should not think they can now line up for testing."
He recalled "when I walked into the Baylor lab and met two highly educated PhDs who were trying to sell the idea to us. Their enthusiasm was amazing."
County Mayor Coppinger said, "Baylor School has really stepped up to the plate."
Mr. Hudson, who was at the meeting, said, "This began when Dr. Forrester and Dr. Richards had the willingness to step up and say 'we can do this.' "
He added, "It's an exciting day for everybody."
Click here for the commission's resolution.
Click here for video of the County Commission meeting.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann applauded news that the Baylor School will serve as a COVID-19 testing site. Last week, Rep. Fleischmann sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging them to approve a waiver for the Baylor School to conduct testing.
“I am proud to have advocated for the Baylor School as they sought to become a local testing site for COVID-19,” he said. “The important work being done by Baylor School researchers will be crucial in keeping the people of East Tennessee safe. We remain united in the fight to combat the spread of COVID-19.”