Safety First

How Regis Ran Its Own COVID-19 Testing Lab

When Regis High School transitioned to hybrid instruction to start the second trimester, the school implemented many health and safety protocols that have become common during the pandemic: daily health screenings, temperature checks, masks, properly distanced classrooms, and an internal contact tracing system, to name a few. But the Regis auditorium also became home to something you won’t find at many high schools: a certified COVID-19 testing laboratory that could process on-demand rapid tests for students, faculty, and staff. Thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of Regis faculty, staff, and students, as well as the expertise and generosity of several alumni and parents, this complex operation allowed the school to operate effectively throughout the winter and spring with the confidence that there was no active transmission of COVID-19 inside our historic building.

Once the school decided to shift away from fully remote instruction, the desire for regular, random testing of the school community was clear, but the ideal approach was not. Several different COVID-19 tests have been developed during the pandemic with varying levels of effectiveness, cost, and ease of use. Researching which test to use and which external laboratory to partner with created many choices and variables, and the Regis administration was committed to making the most informed decision possible.

“There were a lot of options out there,” Vice President for Operations Joseph Amatrucola, who led the effort, said. “We felt that it was important for the safety of our students, as well as for our parents, faculty, and staff, to know we were going to be keeping them as safe as possible.”

After much consideration, as well as consultation with Dr. Anthony Fauci ’58, onsite testing via the Abbott BinaxNOW™ rapid test emerged as the best potential option. Reliable, affordable, and compact, the Abbott test produces accurate results in 15 minutes, optimizing the school’s testing procedures and providing peace of mind to users throughout the day. But the path forward remained murky. At the time these tests were scarce, and Regis still needed to identify a reliable and affordable laboratory to perform and process the tests. “The bottom line is that it was so new and unavailable to the common organization that it was just not accessible,” Amatrucola said.

A Regis parent helped solve the problem. Dr. Kathryn Hutchinson P’18’22, Vice President for the Division of Student Affairs at St. John’s University, had advised Amatrucola last summer as Regis worked to determine proper COVID-19 protocols. As Regis looked for a testing solution, Dr. Hutchinson again proved invaluable. In addition to offering the school the opportunity to purchase extra Abbott tests that St. John’s had, she assured Amatrucola that Regis could pull off its own onsite testing operation without the complexity and added expense of an outside laboratory.

“Use of the Abbott Binax antigen test for surveillance testing on campus has afforded St. John’s the opportunity to provide weekly testing to our community, resulting in thousands of tests completed each month,” Hutchinson said. “We are proud that not one member of the clinical testing team has contracted COVID-19 from doing this important work. Therefore, I was confident that by following all safety protocols, those engaged in the implementation of the testing program at Regis would also remain healthy. Regis is a special place showing extraordinary dedication to our sons even in the midst of a global pandemic, and creating testing capacity onsite is next level and certainly should make Dr. Fauci proud!”

With the access to testing kits now solidified and the encouragement of Dr. Hutchinson, Regis began pursuing the remaining steps necessary to run its own testing facility. In compliance with guidelines to operate a certified clinical laboratory in the state of New York, the school needed to identify a Lab Director to oversee the lab’s operation and ensure compliance with regulations. As soon as the opportunity was presented to him, board-certified OBGYN Dr. Kevin Jovanovic P’22 eagerly signed on, assisting with training staff and advising dry runs of the lab before the project officially debuted in the building. “When I was asked, I was honored to be involved in any way I can for Regis,” Dr. Jovanovic said. “Regis’ mission of Men for Others is such a gift for the young men who attend. My son, Luke, loves the school and has benefited so much. I am happy I can give something in return.” In addition to Dr. Jovanovic, Dr. Christopher Bandera ’06, a pediatrician, signed on to serve as the prescribing physician for the school’s COVID-19 tests, a final administrative piece that allowed the Regis lab to launch.

Starting the week of February 1, Regis began testing roughly 20% of its in-person population. For the individuals being tested, the process was simple: arrive in the auditorium at your scheduled time, receive a nasal swab and swab each nostril, turn in your swab, and wait 15 minutes to receive an email with the result of your test. For the faculty and staff who volunteered their time and knowledge to maintain the lab’s day-to-day responsibilities, it was more complicated. Assistant Principal for Student Life Christian Mariano ’99 maintained a record of tests administered, randomly selecting approximately 50 individuals to be rapid tested each week. Science Department Chair Dr. Stefano Cascapera and English Teacher William Hanlon ’04 served as laboratory technicians, and Mathematics Teacher Meghan Kiernan and Director of the REACH Program Doug Eickman ’05 logged patient information and testing data in an online database developed by the Regis IT department. Director of Information Technology Jose Machuca ’92 was instrumental in reporting results to the Department of Health. Joining the adult volunteers, several students from Regis’ Medical Science Club assisted in the lab, their service seen as a unique opportunity for students to learn valuable scientific skills. “Students’ participation in the lab is essential, and the benefits of their work go both ways,” Dr. Cascapera said. “Students are on the front line in the effort to keep Regis safe, using the latest tools to screen subjects for COVID-19. Being part of the lab helps enrich our students’ educational experiences by showing them the real-life applications of theories that they are learning in class.”

Volunteering their Monday mornings every week, Benjamin Kaiserman ’22, Alexander Greene ’22, Alexander Graber ’23, Jaden Oh ’22, and Christopher Tomeo ’22 fulfilled several lab duties as necessary, eager to explore their career interests and passions for science. “It’s really exciting to be able to apply my freshman biology class knowledge to the real world,” said Oh, whose responsibilities in the lab included processing tests, entering test results in the Regis database, and acting as a second observer to confirm the results of each test. “We learned about how viruses replicate quickly in the human body, and the different types that they were distinguished into based on their genetic material and modes of replication. With this information, I feel that I have a firmer knowledge of how and why the rapid tests were designed in the way they were. I would certainly say the experience has enriched my scientific understanding, even out of the classroom.”

While weekly random testing was the primary focus of the Regis laboratory, the infrastructure in place allowed for several additional applications. For example, students and chaperones were tested for COVID-19 prior to departing for in-person retreats and in advance of the senior dinner cruise on the Hudson (in place of Senior Prom). In addition, if anyone in the building developed systems suggestive of COVID-19, on-demand tests were available to the school nurse and results were immediate. While everyone at Regis looks forward to a more typical academic year in 2021-22, the administration knows that the Regis High School Clinical Laboratory will continue to play an important role to keep the school community safe.

“I’m really proud of the process we went through and the tremendous amount of support from every angle,” said Amatrucola, who expressed thanks to the many individuals, including Dr. Hutchinson, Dr. Jovanovic, Dr. Bandera, Dr. Fauci, and all the staff and students who played a role in bringing a full-fledged, certified testing facility to 84th Street.

Posted: 6/26/21