Misericordia University is taking a lead role in helping to battle the coronavirus pandemic in the area by establishing a COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Laboratory on campus. The project will allow health professionals to conduct randomized, surveillance testing for students, staff and faculty, with the goal of maintaining a safe campus environment in which to work and learn.
The surveillance testing project is a collaboration between Misericordia’s College of Health Sciences and Education, the College of Arts and Science, administration and Cougar Care COVID-19 taskforce to help slow and ultimately control the spread of the coronavirus. The surveillance testing laboratory has been established in response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s recommendation on Nov. 23, 2020, that all students returning to college/university for the Spring 2021 semester be tested and that random testing take place throughout the semester. The semester began with a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes on campus January 25.
Brenda Hage, Ph.D., D.N.P., C.R.N.P, professor of nursing and director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program, and Mark Van Etten, vice president of Finance and Administration at Misericordia, and a member of the Back Mountain EMS community, are among the leaders in the university’s efforts to establish the testing laboratory on campus to comply with the Governor’s wishes. The laboratory is being overseen by Eve Schwartz, M.T. (A.S.C.P.), and a number of medical technologists from the local area have been hired to conduct the testing.
“As a university with a large emphasis on the health sciences, this is a public health initiative of extreme importance that exemplifies the mission and tenets on which Misericordia was founded – serving the needs of the community,” explained Dr. Hage. “Through random testing of our campus population, we will be able to identify asymptomatic individuals with the virus, isolate them and initiate treatment sooner, helping prevent spread of the disease on campus and in the local community.”
Mark and Lorraine Alles, of Harveys Lake, gifted Misericordia $300,000 to help Misericordia with their COVID-19 efforts, citing a desire to provide support where it can best be used to help the Back Mountain community overcome and defeat the coronavirus.
The Surveillance Testing Laboratory is located in Misericordia’s newly constructed Frank M. and Dorothea Henry Science Center. The university has purchased Chai Bio RT-PCR testing instruments, considered the gold standard for surveillance testing. The nearby Henry Student Lounge is serving as the site where samples are collected.
Not to be confused with diagnostic testing used when someone is symptomatic or suspected of having COVID-19, the surveillance process involves the processing of saliva samples collected randomly from students, staff and faculty, that are combined into batches. Once tested, if the batch shows a positive result, then a second test will be done with each person in that batch or “pool” to isolate and determine the positive sample. That person will then be contacted by the Cougar Care Team and referred to the Campus Health Center, if a student, or to their personal physician, for further diagnostic testing. Surveillance testing helps to identify asymptomatic individuals who might unknowingly spread COVID-19 within a community. The rapid availability of results from the on-campus laboratory will greatly reduce the amount of time students have to isolate for confirmation of a positive or negative batch result.
The goal is to have 25 percent of the campus community randomly tested each week. Misericordia’s Statistics Department helped develop a model that will guide the rate and scope of testing on campus. Once the project is operational on campus and is able to fully meet all the university needs, the institution hopes to be able to offer surveillance testing to other entities, such as non-profits, schools and colleges in the region.
Heidi Manning, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, gives credit to the hard work of staff members Leo Carr, laboratory manager, and Jill Dillon, laboratory assistant, for their efforts to convert the laboratory and secure the needed equipment, test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE) and personnel required for the projects in such a short period of time. Members of the university’s information technology staff are contributing to the effort by helping to schedule appointments, as well as ensuring proper labeling, tracking and recording of all specimens tested.
“Misericordia already has PCR machines that are used in the biology curriculum,” added Dr. Manning. “We plan to employ students as workers in the laboratory to assist with prepping and cataloguing the samples – a great opportunity for students to see how the equipment and technology they are learning in the laboratory are used in real life – and in this case, supporting an effort to mitigate the pandemic.”
Students were required to self-isolate for 10 days and have proof of a negative COVID-19 test for admittance to campus prior to the start of classes. The university provided free re-entry testing on campus to students who needed it.
"The opportunity to batch test our campus community throughout the semester and have results back within a few hours will be a huge service to all segments of campus, and particularly to our Athletics Department, since we will be able to test teams, especially those who compete in close contact, such as women’s basketball, per NCAA guidelines before each competition,” reported Carr.
“Among the greatest challenges has been to secure the PPE we need,” added Dillon. “We are still experiencing shortages of N-95 masks – something that has been a hurdle since the beginning.”
Mr. and Mrs. Alles agree that their involvement in the project comes down to good timing, a love of science and a desire to support an educational program that they feel will do the greatest good for the community.
“Lorraine and I have tried to work and live by a simple principle – ‘Do Well by Doing Good.’ I am fortunate to have done well by helping others, and the timing is right to support a project at Misericordia that has the potential to do so much good,” said Mr. Alles, who has spent more than three decades in the biopharmaceutical industry, and is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Celgene Corporation, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in New Jersey. “We are proud to participate in this public health initiative and to help give this important project traction.”
A native of Lansdale, Mr. Alles is a graduate of Lock Haven University. He began his career as a teacher, was an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and served in a number of positions in the biopharmaceutical industry before joining Celgene as a vice president in 2004. During his 16 years at Celgene, the company discovered and developed a diverse suite of globally marketed medicines for blood cancers, solid tumor cancers and serious inflammatory diseases. Under his leadership the U.S.-based company grew from less than 500 employees to a global industry leader serving patients in more than 50 countries with 8,800 employees. He most recently oversaw Bristol Myers Squibb’s $74B acquisition of Celgene Corporation in November 2019. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for Antengene Therapeutics and Syros Pharmaceuticals.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to help establish COVID-19 testing on the campus of Misericordia University. My hope is that Misericordia will be able to alleviate some of the misinformation surrounding the virus and help eliminate COVID-19,” offered Mrs. Alles, who was born in Plymouth, raised in the Back Mountain and is a graduate of Dallas High School. “To us, this is much more than a community health project. We also wanted to help increase awareness about the need for philanthropy and what can be generated when a community comes together for the greater good.”
Mrs. Alles earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Lock Haven University and worked for 20 years as a systems programmer for Commonwealth Telephone, Systematics and Alltel. Lorraine and Mark met as students at Lock Haven, have three children and have lived in the Back Mountain since the mid-1980s.
Visit Misericordia's COVID-19 Protocols & Updates page learn more about surveillance testing and how we are keeping our campus safe.
Photo 1: Misericordia University student Leigh Segali, a social work major from New Windsor, New Jersey, was among more than 500 campus community members selected for the first round of random COVID-19 surveillance testing being conducted on the campus in Dallas Township, Pa.
Photo 2: Mark Van Etten, vice president of Finance and Administration at Misericordia, and a member of the Back Mountain EMS community; Photo 3: Brenda Hage, Ph.D., D.N.P., C.R.N.P, professor of nursing and director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program; Photo 4: Heidi Manning, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Photo 5: Leo Carr, laboratory manager; Photo 6: Jill Dillon, laboratory assistant; Photo 7: Mark Alles, of Harveys Lake, gifted Misericordia $300,000 to help Misericordia with their COVID-19 efforts, citing a desire to provide support where it can best be used to help the Back Mountain community overcome and defeat the coronavirus; Photo 8: Segali during first round of random COVID-19 surveillance testing