Local Lab Helps Healthcare Prevent Spread of COVID-19
In June, Assured Bio Labs, LLC, an environmental microbiology lab in Oak Ridge, became the first U.S. facility to be accredited by the AIHA for surface and air analysis of the virus that causes COVID-19. Since then, the lab has tested samples for more than 100 clients including hospital systems, long-term care facilities, financial institutions, commercial businesses, municipalities, and manufacturing facilities. Their capability allows for rapid detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 virus in air or on surfaces using proprietary swab technology and M-TRAP® technology patented by Assured’s CEO, Edward Sobek (EMBA-HL, ’16).
“Our technology allows for quick, 10-minute grab samples from the air or longer samples using our WhisperCare Continuous Monitoring technology that can run from eight hours to seven days, depending on the client’s need,” Sobek says.
With the pandemic still surging, testing air and surfaces for COVID-19 is essential to protect workers and the public. Many large companies are preparing (or have begun) to bring workers back in full or partial capacity, and one of the key technologies they are interested in deploying to combat Covid-19 infections is WhisperCare.
Sobek originally developed the business plan and marketing for WhisperCare while working on his Executive MBA for Healthcare Leadership in 2016 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business. His project focused on implementing WhisperCare in hospital critical care facilities, and he conducted a project in a pediatric oncology facility where he monitored 25 patient rooms over six months at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies in Ohio.
“We had been using WhisperCare to detect airborne mold and bacteria that are harmful to children with weak immune systems in the oncology facility,” Sobek says. “When COVID-19 hit, it was an easy switch to adapt WhisperCare to capture SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Sobek notes that the technique his lab developed for COVID quantifies the virus concentration in a sample, whereas other labs only report positive or negative results. Quantification reduces false negative and false positive reporting.
“We take a molecular biology approach and extract and quantify SARS-CoV-2 virus based on a calibrated RNA analysis,” he says. “It’s very similar to what the CDC is doing, but we provide count data or the exact number of viral particles in the air or on a surface.”
Sobek says engineering solutions that focus on air circulation, coupled with knowledge of viral loads in the air and on surfaces, are required to confront the problem.
“Facility managers and EHS personnel need counts to test and refine their cleaning and air purification methods,” says Sobek.
Assured Bio is working closely with Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to monitor hospital COVID ICU rooms and rural schools. That collaboration involves another 2016 EMBA-HL graduate, Tiffany Nelson, who is the executive director of the center.
“When COVID-19 hit we started discussing an approach to help protect healthcare staff as well as students and teachers in public schools,” Sobek says. “We wanted to know how much, if any, viral load was being shed from infected persons, and how the virus spreads indoors on air currents related to ventilation.”
Sobek says they have been detecting high viral airborne concentrations in the ICU rooms, which is often greatest near the ventilator, but remains in the thousands throughout the room—more than enough viral particles to infect care providers.
“This testing has provided us with critical information to implement measures to reduce airborne concentration in these locations,” he says. Assured’s next steps include monitoring areas immediately outside of the ICU and starting testing on low-cost technologies that can reduce the spread.