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UW Plays Key Role in Wyoming COVID-19 Testing Effort

April 10, 2020
group of people standing together
Some of the UW-affiliated workers at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory pause for a photo Friday. From left are Noah Hull, Chayse Rowley, Taylor Fearing (Cortez), Chris Anderson, Meagan Soehn, Callie Klinghagen, Coleman Young and Matios Lakew. (Noah Hull Photo)

The University of Wyoming -- in particular, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources -- is playing a key role in the state’s COVID-19 testing program. This includes providing personnel and supplies to the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory (WPHL).

WPHL Microbiology Laboratories Manager Noah Hull is himself a UW graduate.

“Currently, the WPHL has one of the faster turnaround times in the country for COVID-19 testing, averaging seven hours from receipt to result,” he says. “In fact, we have been able to test all samples that have been received each day without creating a backlog. Much of this success is because we have been able to make 15 emergency hires at our lab. The vast majority of these hires are either current UW undergraduate students, graduate students or recent graduates of UW, almost exclusively from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (veterinary sciences and molecular biology).”

Right now, the major limiting factor in testing is not staff, but rather the availability of sample preparation kits, Hull says. There is a nationwide shortage of these kits.

WPHL has been working with UW faculty members Brant Schumaker, Will Laegreid and Mark Gomelsky to gather consumable supplies such as plastic tubes that are back-ordered and creating a bottleneck for the sampling of patients.

“Over the past week, there has been an amazing outpouring from the UW community to source these consumables and get them to us in Cheyenne,” Hull says. “This will have a direct effect on being able to test more patients in our state.”

Gomelsky, a professor of molecular biology, has known Hull since he was an undergraduate at UW and reached out to department heads at UW for the supply drive.

“In response, the departments of Molecular Biology, Microbiology Program, Botany, Kinesiology and Health, as well as the biotech company, GlycoBac, generously donated plastic consumables. With the help of my son, Leo, we collected these supplies at the designated sites, packed them up and brought them to the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory,” Gomelsky says.

From there, Ashley Smith, also a UW alumna, current staff member at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory and Hull’s fiancée, delivered them to the WPHL.

The biggest issue was a lack of 15-milliliter conical tubes, which were back-ordered for over a month. UW donated close to 4,000 of these conical tubes.

“The most significant UW contribution has been in training an expert who supervises coronavirus testing,” Gomelsky says. “In times of great uncertainty that we are experiencing, Wyoming citizens can be assured that coronavirus testing in our state is in reliable hands.”

Not only did UW train Hull, but also many of the other WPHL personnel and emergency hires (see complete list below). Hull says UW’s training allowed the new hires to get going quickly, in large part due to the fact they experienced undergraduate research at UW.

“This is why the students were qualified,” he says. “With the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources putting undergraduate research at the forefront of its program, it lessens a major barrier to finding good candidates. With facilities like the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, it is analogous to the WPHL and was an easy transition of student help.”

“We have a long-standing relationship with the public health lab,” Laegreid, director of the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory at UW, says. “We do certain things for them, and they certainly help us out. This kind of comes under the heading of ‘one health, one medicine,’ which really refers to seamless interaction between human and animal health.”

In this case, WPHL needed trained hands. And vet lab personnel -- professors and students -- stepped up to help, including Schumaker, a veterinary epidemiologist and UW associate professor. Schumaker and four current UW students began working in the WPHL during spring break to help process COVID-19 tests.

“It speaks well of this state,” Laegreid says. “We have an ongoing, very close relationship between a number of the state agencies -- human and animal health -- and they work very well together. It’s at times like this that that becomes very important.”

“This is quintessential Wyoming behavior and displaying that ‘cowboy up’ mentality,” Hull says. “Without hesitation, the folks at UW, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Department of Veterinary Sciences, Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, Department of Molecular Biology and other departments, as well as Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Health Laboratory, jumped into action to allow us to serve the citizens of the state. We are very appreciative to be in a state that cares this much.”

UW faculty, staff and students are helping the state’s COVID-19 response in many other ways, including providing masks, hand sanitizer and other supplies to health care workers; and helping connect providers with patients via the UW-based Wyoming Telehealth Network.

“I am very proud that members of the college community are stepping up to support our neighbors across the state at this difficult time,” says College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean Barbara Rasco, who notes that the college is helping in a number of other ways.

“As you may see, Wyoming is truly one town with long streets,” Gomelsky says. “We all are connected and part of the same community.”

WPHL temporary emergency hires, listed by hometown or country, include:

Becker, Minn. -- Chris Anderson, UW veterinary sciences graduate student.

Casper -- Meagan Soehn, UW microbiology undergraduate.

Cheyenne -- Kelsie Bowcutt, UW microbiology undergraduate; Taylor Fearing (Cortez), recent UW microbiology graduate; Chayse Rowley, UW family and consumer sciences recent graduate; and Bryce Snow, UW zoology and physiology graduate student.

Ethiopia -- Matios Lakew, USDA Borlaug Fellow being trained at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory.

Laramie -- Brant Schumaker, UW faculty member in the Department of Veterinary Sciences; and Samyr Wissar, UW molecular biology undergraduate.

Rawlins -- Coleman Young, UW zoology and physiology graduate student.

Worland -- Callie Klinghagen, UW veterinary sciences undergraduate.

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