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UK variant brings KDHE mobile lab to FHSU

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State University student Kadin Heacock, left, gets swabbed for COVID-19 testing by Kansas National Guard medic Spc. James Hawkins on Friday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
Myron Gunsalus Jr., director of the KDHE laboratories, right, checks in FHSU student Andre Aires, on Friday morning at Gross Memorial Coliseum in advance of COVID-19 testing.
DenaLyn Page, left, mobile RN with KDHE, and Shelly Schneider, right, public health nurse with KDHE, prepare to swab people for COVID-19 testing at Gross Memorial Coliseum on Saturday morning.
KDHE epidemiologist Farrah Ahmed, rear center, directs health care workers on the COVID-19 testing registration process Friday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
KDHE epidemiologist Farrah Ahmed discusses registration with the health care team in advance of COVID-19 testing on Friday morning at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment brought its mobile testing laboratory to the Fort Hays State University campus on Friday after a student athlete tested positive for the UK variant of COVID-19.

“This isn’t the really bad one,” said Spc. James Hawkins, a medic with the Kansas National Guard. “Just midway up your nose to get a couple boogers.”

Those were the instructions for Kadin Heacock, a Fort Hays State University senior majoring in cybersecurity and a member of the wrestling team.

Heacock showed up first thing Saturday morning for COVID-19 testing at FHSU’s Gross Memorial Coliseum.

About 196 students, faculty and staff were tested Friday by a rapid response team of health care workers organized by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. They came equipped with KDHE’s brand new lab on wheels, which can run the test samples on site.

The team was in Hays after discovery late Wednesday that an FHSU student athlete was the state’s first case of the highly contagious and much dreaded UK variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Workers included four Kansas National Guard medics, two KDHE nurses, and laboratory and epidemiology staff, said KDHE epidemiologist Farrah Ahmed, who led the team.

Patient Zero

The FHSU athlete tested positive during team testing on Jan. 18, and later whole genome sequencing by KDHE identified it as the UK strain, believed more deadly than other strains.

“There’s no indication right now that it’s widely spread in Kansas,” Ahmed said on Friday of the UK variant. “We’ve been looking for it. We’ve been doing whole genome sequencing. So it was acquired out of state.”

Some 33 states have identified patients with the UK variant.

“We knew it was coming at some point,” she said.

Saturday’s testing only identifies positives, so whole genome sequencing for the UK variant will have to come later, said Justin Blanding, senior epidemiologist at KDHE, also at Gross Memorial on Friday.

“We did identify the UK strain within this area, so that’s kind of why we’re doing this targeted approach,” Blanding said of the outbreak response team.

In trying to prevent spread and transmission, KDHE epidemiologists identify hot spots with the data from testing, Blanding said.

“We try to see what are some of the targeted populations that this is affecting the most,” he said.

KDHE leading

Normally, the local health department takes the lead with COVID-19 testing, collecting swabs and sending them off to the state for analysis. Results take several days or longer. But when an outbreak justifies it, KDHE can step in to speed up the process.

“We’re trying to get results within four hours,” said Blanding. “So really it’s to try and make sure that everything is a quick response.”

Friday’s mass testing should also identify people who are asymptomatic, the unwitting carriers of the virus, he said.

KDHE’s Friday stations at Gross Memorial included a white folding table set up in a lobby Gate 2 for patient intake and demographics, with registration, and an informational flyer about the testing and how to interpret the lab results.

Inside the arena, nurses administered the swab tests.

“It’s not a nasopharyngeal; yay for everybody,” said Ahmed, referencing the dreaded test requiring a long swab plunged deep into the nose. “Because of the platform we’re using in the lab, we have to use a very specific kind of swab and a very specific collection method, so it’s the middle of the nose. And both nostrils.”

Mobile labs

KDHE built two of the mobile labs, and a collection vehicle for taking samples, for about $500,000, said Myron Gunsalus Jr., director of the KDHE laboratories. The money came from federal CARES Act spending to help states with the pandemic.

“I think we’re one of the only states that’s ever done this, this much mobile,” said Gunsalis. “All the other mobile labs are trailers where they take a semi and drop it.”

This is the team’s second time using the lab, Ahmed said.

“We haven’t tried to do massive testing. We did this yesterday out in Douglas County,” she said. “We did a little pilot out in Eudora and Baldwin City.”

Once on site, it takes a bit to get the testing equipment ready.

“We’ve driven it around and used it multiple times to make sure it meets all the requirements,” Gunsalis said. “We like to allow three to four hours. It’s actually a little bit shorter than that. Everything we do today will be reported out this evening.”

Each person tested will receive a text, email, or a call on their home phone number afterward. 

“When we find the positives, then we will work with the university, or an employer, or whoever,” Ahmed said. “We will let those positives know they need to isolate, we will start the contact tracing, and let those contacts know they need to be in quarantine.”

Contact tracing

The FHSU Kansas’ Patient Zero lives off campus, said Scott Cason, spokesman for the university. He was tested in January, along with other members of his team, but he was the only one whose test came back positive at the time, Cason said.

No games or events were canceled as a result. But the plan Thursday was to test all Tiger athletes, he said.

Ahmed estimated about 50 people were broadly traced as contacts to the athlete while he could spread the virus.

“That was a very aggressive kind of contact tracing. A much wider net than normal,” she said. “We don’t expect that that many people were exposed, but we’re just trying to be careful.”

While Patient Zero is out of his infectious period, he did expose some people while infectious and those people should be about through their incubation period, so it is a good time to test them, Ahmed said. It helps that the university has been social distancing anyway and requiring masks, she said.

The person did quarantine once they knew they were positive, said Ahmed.

“That has actually helped a lot in this situation to keep the number of close contacts pretty minimal,” she said. “This variant’s new and we don’t quite know what we’re dealing with, so we do want to cast a wider net."

Students show up

“In Kansas in general we hit some very high percent positivities, which means of all the people you’re testing, what percentage are positive. Back in November-December we had our highpoints. We’ve been kind of steadily coming down from there, so it all depends. This new UK variant, it throws a kink in things. It’s widely seen as more contagious, so that’s al the more reason not to stand down your guard,” Ahmed said. “We don’t want to ease up on testing at this point.”

As for student Heacock on Friday, he was third in line, waiting outside for the double doors to the arena to open at 9 a.m. 

“We were told to come here by our coach and Hammeke, just to kind of make sure we don’t have anything,” said Heacock, referring to FHSU Athletic Director Curtis Hammeke.

Ahead of him was Andre Aires, a junior majoring in finance, who said he came after getting an email from the university letting him know the free testing would be available to everyone on campus.

Second in line was Ronald Storrer, a graduate student in business administration, who said the students were there “just to make sure we’re fine.”