On a recent school day, students at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora lined up for their weekly COVID-19 test.
But unlike the now familiar routine of nose grafting, these students take a different kind of test.
“It’s the simple matter of drooling into a pipe, either funnel or straw. It’s very easy to do, and patients are typically in and out in five minutes,” said Rhiannon Clifton, senior director of operations and client integration at SHIELD Illinois. .
The unique saliva test was developed by researchers from the University of Illinois, and SHIELD officials say it has become an important tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“The beauty of the SHIELD test is that we can catch the virus faster, so we catch it before the patient is infected,” Clifton said.
Evan Glazer, president of the Illinois Math and Science Academy, says the school entered into a contract with SHIELD last August when students returned for personal learning.
“IMSA is unique because we are a housing campus, so students are close at all times,” Glazer said.
Not only has the school been able to remain open, Glazer says the test positivity rate has stayed below 1%, even through the delta and omicron increases.
“Out of 26,000 tests, we’ve had 56 cases … which is remarkable,” Glazer said. “We went five weeks without any cases at all.”
Although not all schools have seen that level of success, Glazer says IMSA paired the test with robust contact tracking.
“Once informed of the results, you have an entire team behind the scenes that ensures that everyone you’ve had close contact with is also removed from the environment based on vaccination status and symptoms,” Glazer said.
IMSA is one of 1,800 sites currently using the test – 1,700 of them are schools. A team of healthcare professionals from or contract with SHIELD comes in and runs the entire program. It’s a massive operation built by the university on the go.
Shields CEO Ronald Watkins says the test costs a third as much as the standard PCR test – and schools will be reimbursed for all costs with money from the federal CARES Act.
The University of Illinois brought together business, engineering and supply chain specialists to come up with a system that would produce PCR results in less than a day, Watkins said.
“U. of I. put the money in, jumped out there, started building the labs, and it’s like we find out as we go,” Watkins said.
There are 11 laboratories underway, either operated or outsourced by SHIELD Illinois. Once the test hits the lab, it takes an average of 10 hours from arrival to result.
Laboratory Director Natalie Lubbers says the North Chicago facility came online in a month. Saliva samples are sorted either manually or by robotic machines built specifically for the process.
“We go through a comprehensive review process … we keep a very clean lab – we review each sample so we release the best possible results,” Lubbers said.
Lubbers says a false positive is extremely rare because SHIELD tests three different targets, and two of those three must be positive for the test to be crucial.
The results are sent electronically to the patient within minutes, Lubbers said. The process of testing samples has played out more than a million times since SHIELD started, but Watkins says the goal is to eventually wind up the organization.
This will mean that the pandemic has entered the endemic phase. But he says saliva technology has unlimited potential for other uses.
“Everything from being able to detect a person’s well-being, to whether they’ve had a concussion or not – all sorts of different uses of saliva,” Watkins said.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz