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Clemson offers in-house coronavirus tests free to the public as Upstate cases spike

CLEMSON — A federally certified lab at Clemson University, which for several weeks has steadily built up its coronavirus testing capacity, is now large enough to offer tests free to the public.

The lab, currently in Jordan Hall, can process up to 6,000 samples a day and will by month's end move to a new site in Sirrine Hall where capacity will reach up to 9,000 samples a day. The university will need the extra capacity at the start of spring semester in January, when all 26,000 students plus thousands of employees will have to be tested within a three-day window before they can set foot on campus.

Though the lab does not typically run at capacity, the staff and equipment have grown enough to accommodate both students and anyone in the region who needs a test, bioengineering professor Delphine Dean told The Post and Courier this week. Most students are not currently on campus, with the university shifting online after Thanksgiving.

Fellow professor Mark Blenner, who worked with Dean to set up the lab, urged anyone in the area who wants a test to take advantage.

Clemson University offers coronavirus tests free to the public at Memorial Stadium

Clemson bioengineering professor Delphine Dean takes a call on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, outside a lab in Jordan Hall where thousands of saliva samples are tested daily for coronavirus. Crates and pallets hold gear that will be transferred to a larger lab in Sirrine Hall later this month. Dean helped set up the federally certified lab, which is now collecting samples free of charge at Memorial Stadium from anyone in the public who wants to know if they have been infected with the virus. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

"I live in this community, and I don't want these communities to be as high as they are," Blenner said. "It makes it harder for me to do things in public and do essential things."

The saliva tests are easy, quick and highly accurate, Blenner said. Now is the time to be tested, he said, if you traveled or gathered with a large group at Thanksgiving.

Clemson staff set up a sample collection site for the public Wednesday at Memorial Stadium and people trickled in, one or two at a time. Among them was Clemson graduate student Deeksha Narayan, walking there with fellow grad student Harish Lakshmi Srinivasan to undertake what has become a weekly routine.

Spit in a plastic vial. Wait six to eight hours. Check to see if you're clear of coronavirus.

"I think it's a good thing," said Narayan, who like Srinivasan works in an on-campus lab and must prove she is free of infection.

The collection site at Memorial Stadium is open most days from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dean said. The university will release an official announcement about hours in the next few days.

Clemson University's aggressive testing regime for students and employees during the fall semester brought daily test counts to between 2,000 and 3,000 in the days ahead of the Thanksgiving break, Dean said. This represented 25 to 30 percent of all tests administered statewide since the middle of November. 

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With the expansion, Clemson's 9,000-test capacity could theoretically double the number of samples analyzed daily for coronavirus statewide.

The timing is fortunate, given the recent surge in coronavirus infections in the Upstate — and Pickens County in particular. Pickens County, where Clemson is located, leads the regional surge in positive coronavirus tests with nearly 800 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. Greenville's cases during that period hovered closer to 600.

Coronavirus cases surge in the Upstate, led by Pickens County

This graph shows the rolling two-week case count per 100,000 people in Pickens, Greenville, Oconee and Anderson counties. Greenville has the most cases in the region, but this graph shows that Pickens currently has the highest count per capita. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control

Dean and Blenner have operated the lab since early September, starting with a few hundred tests a day and concentrating first on athletes. Working with Greenville-based medical technology firm Rymedi, the team established protocols for registering patients digitally, encrypting their personal information, collecting samples stamped with a QR code, informing patients privately of test results and copying those to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The Clemson lab received a major financial boost in October with a commitment of $6.9 million from Gov. Henry McMaster and the state’s Joint Bond Review Committee. The new space in Sirrine will roughly double the lab's space and equipment, with 10 robots and 13 PCR machines.

With relatively quick results, the university has been able to catch and contain outbreaks. The positivity rate on campus was below 1.5 percent heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.

Rachel Ham, one of three supervisors at the lab, said techs have streamlined processing speed to run samples nonstop, if necessary, for 10 hours a day. This means samples — which require at least four hours to process from the moment they arrive at the lab — can produce results the same day or, at the latest, by the following morning.

Clemson University offers coronavirus tests free to the public at Memorial Stadium

Saliva samples await testing at a lab in Jordan Hall at Clemson University on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

"We just have a fast turnaround," Ham said. "We've automated a lot of it and maxed out the efficiency of our techs. We have robots working while techs are working."

A Post and Courier reporter submitted a sample at the lab on Wednesday afternoon. She registered on-site using her smartphone, handed over a plastic vial containing a few milliliters of saliva and received a text message 4½ hours later alerting her that the results were in. Clicking on a link in the text message, the results popped up: negative.

"It's a tool that doctors should be using to help patients understand what level risk they are at or what level of risk they are putting others at," Blenner said. "Your negative result is not your passport to stop social distancing or to take your mask off."

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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