COVID-19 testing lab moves to larger space

Expanded space and equipment doubles lab speed

October 11, 2021
Author: Imran Ghori
October 11, 2021

UC Riverside’s COVID-19 testing lab has moved to a larger space at Webber Hall, where the lab team has more than doubled the number of samples it can process.

The move was completed Sept. 15, a day before move-in weekend, when the lab tested around 7,000 samples from incoming student residents over a five-day period.

The diagnostic lab was created last summer by a team of faculty members so UCR could conduct independent testing of the limited on-campus population at the time. The lab officially opened at the Multidisciplinary Research Building, or MRB, in September 2020 and began regularly testing employees working on campus and students living in residence halls.

As more students and employees began getting vaccinated this spring and the student population dwindled over the summer, the number of samples sent to the lab began dropping, said Katherine Borkovich, divisional dean of Life Sciences and a professor of microbiology and plant pathology who helped set up and oversees the lab. But with the delta variant and the campus returning to mostly in-person instruction and work this fall, there was a renewed need for regular testing at a greater capacity, she said.

covid testing lab
Lab manager Alexander Carrillo, left, lab technician Sophia Tsau, and Katherine Borkovich, Divisional Dean Life Sciences, at the COVID-19 testing lab in Webber Hall on Monday, September 27, 2021. (UCR/Stan Lim)

All residents moving into campus housing were required to be tested as part of the check-in process. All vaccinated, asymptomatic students taking courses on campus will be tested at least once during the quarter, while unvaccinated students are required to take weekly COVID-19 tests. Student Health Services is overseeing the sample collection process.

At the old location, the lab tested about 500 samples a day, with 600 the most it processed, she said. At its new home, the lab processed between 1,100 and 1,400 samples per day the first weekend.

“I felt it was pretty successful,” said Borkovich, who personally collected student samples from Lot 30, where student residents checked in.

The expanded space and the addition of a third thermocycler made it possible, she said.

Putting on protective gear
Lab technician Sophia Tsau, puts on gloves to begin preparing the COVID testing lab in Webber Hall before samples arrive on Monday, September 27, 2021. (UCR/Stan Lim)

In their former location at the MRB, lab personnel and equipment were separated into three small rooms, while the freezers were in a busy hallway. That sometimes made it harder to communicate and slowed down the process, Borkovich said. When leaving for another lab, personnel would need to take off and don new personal protective equipment, as required under health and safety rules.

In the new 1,000-square-foot room, lab manager Alexander Carrillo and lab technicians Sophia Tsau and Daniel Raygoza can work in the same space and the equipment is within easy reach.

“It’s improved coordination and communication,” Carrillo said.

preparing lab equipement
Lab manager Alexander Carrillo turns on equipment in the new COVID-19 testing lab in Webber Hall before samples arrive on Monday, September 27, 2021. (UCR/Stan Lim)

Borkovich added: “Here everybody knows what’s going on.” 

The lab has dedicated spaces for different functions, with one area reserved for personal protective equipment, where lab personnel can put on gloves and gowns; another countertop used for the three thermocyclers; and two biosafety cabinets along the wall. The cabinets house three robots, which extract genetic information to test the samples in the thermocyclers, and are now linked to a central computer in the room.

The lab personnel credited Facilities Services for quickly improving the room with new paint and patching up the floor in less than three weeks, and campus biosafety officer Tran Phan for helping plan the space and the move of equipment from MRB.

“They all did a tremendous amount of work,” Carrillo said.