K-State labs assist Kansas health department with routine work

Students in chemical engineering open the water outlet valve on a heat exchanger during a Transport Phenomena Lab in Durland Hall. (Archive Photo by Parker Robb | Collegian Media Group)

During the outbreak of COVID-19, Kansas Board of Regents universities with experience in laboratory procedure across the state have been asked by the health department to provide some assistance with record-keeping, logging samples and other routine work the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would typically carry out itself.

Since professors are already employees of the state of Kansas, they’re equipped to assist other state agencies, such as KDHE, with qualified services in the event of a national emergency to allow health officials to divert their attention to critical needs — in this case, novel coronavirus testing.

Rob DeLong, associate professor of anatomy and physiology, and Mark Haub, professor and head of the food, nutrition and dietetic health program, are among those from Kansas State helping KDHE with these tasks.

“First I had to learn the system for logging [and] tracking the samples and testing,” DeLong said. “Then the excellent group at KDHE has been working hard to implement a more rapid and high throughput testing process, so [Haub] and I have adapted to that in helping prepare the samples for [polymerase chain reaction] testing.”

When the announcement went out that KDHE was asking for assistance, the chair for DeLong’s department knew he had worked with ribonucleic acid and polymerase chain reactions before and DeLong was selected upon volunteering for the role.

“Honestly, I sort of felt like it was my duty to serve in this way – that having worked with virally-infected cells in the past and being familiar with these different aspects of the testing process, [ribonucleic acid] extraction, etc., I could rapidly plug in and be in a position to help,” DeLong said. “Plus I kind of felt like I owed it to my K-State colleagues, neighbors, friends to be more on the front line helping to fight this thing.”

Ribonucleic acid is a genetic material that is chemically similar to DNA and is present in living cells. Some types of viruses, such as SARS-ncoV2, use this as their genetic material. These unique viral sequences are detected from the virus by a specialized test known as the polymerase chain reaction, which is able to detect virus-specific RNA sequences.

For Haub, the ability to assist full-time lab workers and allow them a needed day or two off is rewarding.

“We are helping to increase the capacity of our state facility to conduct COVID-19 tests. The training by their staff has been fantastic,” Haub said. “Testing is happening seven days a week. We are providing assistance with receiving and logging samples and then preparing the samples to be analyzed. It is an honor to use my training to help our state during this pandemic. We all play a role in helping our communities through this public health crisis.”

K-State labs have also provided a supply of personal protective equipment and other testing equipment to healthcare workers — both at the local and state levels — in an effort to maximize state testing capacity for COVID-19.