Perspective: On the front lines of COVID-19 testing

COVID-19 testing, CLIA Lab, The Jackson Laboratory
Technicians working in the CLIA Lab at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine. JAX photo by Adam Mil-Homens and Mallory Ryan.

Rachel Goldfeder is a JAX computational scientist who has taken on the role of project manager for the JAX COVID-19 CLIA Lab testing team.

In a non-COVID-19 world, I am a computational scientist on the Genome Technologies team at JAX. This means that I focus on writing code that I can use to study the human genome and epigenome in search of patterns that are indicators of cancer. Our goal is to identify genomic and epigenomic differences between healthy tissue and tumor tissue. Once we’ve identified these key differences, doctors will be able to screen future patients for these patterns via simple, non-invasive techniques like a blood draw to help detect and treat cancer earlier.

In March, JAX’s leadership team and CLIA group (the testing team at JAX) made the bold and heroic decision to All of a sudden, there were dozens of components that needed to be ramped up in parallel, and it quickly became apparent that there was a need for someone to help track, coordinate, and organize these activities.

Rachel Goldfeder stands outside the Connecticut State Armory in Hartford. JAX is working closely with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the National Guard to facilitate Connecticut's "return to work" efforts.

I joined the group in early March as the project manager – so, my role is to work at the intersection of all of our teams of experts and help drive cross-functional projects, establish timelines, track action items, and make sure that everything is functioning smoothly and nothing falls through the cracks. The more I work in this capacity, the more I am amazed by all of the expertise we have at JAX and how willing everybody is to help – it is a fantastic team!

This is a really fast-paced, exciting environment with lots of moving parts. Each day – and really each hour of each day – I’m working on something different. Some days I am sitting in with the CLIA group as they work out how to set up and validate the actual testing protocol, some days I am working with our infrastructure, safety, and facilities teams to figure out where and how to set up new equipment, or other days I am helping coordinate onboarding new hospitals as partner institutes or interfacing with the IT team about software needs for patient data entry and test reporting.

We track the numbers for all of the tests that we run – the number of tests we run each day, what percent were positive and what percent were negative. Though these numbers are meaningful, the moments where this work feels most impactful is in hearing the individual stories of people we are helping.

I’ve heard stories of mothers who were separated from their newborns who couldn’t be reunited until COVID-19 tests came back negative or physicians who couldn’t perform surgeries until their COVID-19 test results were returned. These stories add so much significance to the work that we are doing and the quick turnaround time that we are providing. I know that hospitals are using our results to help properly allocate resources, and so we are all really proud to be able to provide quick and accurate results for them. 

Most recently, as part of our  JAX to provide widescale COVID-19 testing in ConnecticutIn partnership with the State of Connecticut, JAX is expanding its COVID-19 testing capacity from 550 tests per day to 20,000 tests per day, between now and early July for Connecticut residents.recent collaboration with the state of Connecticut to expand our testing to 20,000 tests per day, I have been the point of contact for the National Guard Command Center in Hartford to share what I know about JAX’s testing process and learn about the State’s testing dashboard. We discuss our capacity for COVID-19 testing at JAX, our volume, any current bottlenecks, and the State collection and reporting process. The idea is to work collaboratively with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the National Guard to coordinate a higher volume of testing across the state to facilitate Connecticut’s “return to work” efforts.  It’s been so exciting to work with the National Guard and I’m happy that JAX is able to contribute to this state-wide initiative.

To be honest, I am in complete awe of my colleagues. The CLIA group is working extremely hard around the clock to provide this testing for our community. So many of our JAX teams have really come together in a great showing of “One JAX” team spirit to contribute in any way they can. I think this testing effort, and really even the virus itself, show us how interconnected we all are. None of this testing effort would be possible without great help and support from so many teams at JAX: the IT and Computation Science teams, infrastructure, facilities, EHS, purchasing, warehouse receiving team, security team, the admin teams, JMCRS customer support, obviously the CLIA group, and really incredible leadership from Ed Liu, Charles Lee, Rich Lussier, Fran de Abreu, and the entire senior management team. I do want to give a special shout out and thank you to my amazing supervisor, Chia-Lin Wei, for allowing me the flexibility and time away from my “normal” projects to work on this effort!

I feel incredibly lucky to work for an organization that really cares about its employees and the surrounding community. It has been such a pleasure and honor to work with this team on this project.