In order to graduate and receive their U.S. Coast Guard unlimited licenses, seniors at Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) must complete many hours of training exercises aboard a ship at sea. But the class of 2020 was set to graduate in the midst of a global pandemic, in which some of the most dramatic initial outbreaks took place on cruise ships. The students wondered whether they would be able to complete their training. How could anyone possibly ensure that the ship’s crew, officers and dozens of students from across the country would be safe and COVID-free?
MMA got in touch with The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) and devised a careful plan. Everyone who would board the ship would be tested twice for COVID-19 beforehand, remaining quarantined between tests to prevent undetected infection. JAX scientists tested each sample for the virus’s RNA signature and reported the results within 24 hours. The entire class and ship’s crew tested negative, and the students were able to run the ship’s systems, conduct maintenance and stand watches as required.
“Upon receipt of those second results, we felt confident that we did not have the virus among us. The tension subsided and we looked forward to welcoming the students aboard,” says Captain John Cashman, Commandant of Midshipmen at MMA, who captained the ship for the class of 2020. “I am very pleased that we were able to provide this opportunity for the students to complete their education and earn their licenses.”
Now, as college students across the country finalize class schedules and return to campuses, The Jackson Laboratory has partnered with MMA to provide comprehensive COVID-19 testing on a much larger scale. Experts at JAX are leveraging the laboratory’s high-tech resources to deliver fast, accurate test results, providing information that will ensure students, faculty and staff can return to campus as safely as possible.
“It’s been a natural convergence of relationships and expertise that have pulled together and made this testing partnership happen,” explains LuAnn Ballesteros, vice president for external and government affairs at JAX.
JAX proved to be in the right place at the right time for MMA. The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn., already had a laboratory with the equipment and certifications needed to process samples from patients, so JAX scientists could quickly pivot to test for the novel coronavirus. President and CEO Edison Liu, M.D., provided valuable scientific insight that helped MMA administrators design an ideal testing schedule and put measures in place to keep people safe in between tests and while on the ship.
Captain Cashman was part of the initial planning discussions, went through the double-testing process and was on the ship with the students for the entire duration of their training. From his perspective, he says the entire process was “very smooth and straightforward, thanks to the guidance received from JAX and the coordination amongst all parties.”
Elizabeth True, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at MMA, agrees, adding that the seniors’ training voyage proved to be a good test case that laid the foundations for back-to-school testing plans.
“It was really an opportunity for us to pilot a plan and work out details with a small group. We were able to do that, take notes, and plan for the future,” she says.
One of the biggest factors that makes JAX stand out as a testing partner is the Laboratory’s ability to deliver test results very soon after receiving samples. While studies and media reports show that testing delays are a serious issue even in America’s COVID hot spots, 98 percent of tests at JAX are processed within 24 hours, with the remaining two percent turned around in 36 hours or less.
Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, director and professor at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, says that “from the beginning, the two top priorities have been consistent: accurate testing and keeping the turnaround under 24 hours.”
Ballesteros concurs, saying, “I’m hearing that 24-hour timing really matters. Our customer service representatives and access to clinical expertise in the lab are also differentiators.”
Long wait times for test results can mean that patients spend days unknowingly infecting others around them, making effective contact tracing and containment nearly impossible. Being certain that test results will come quickly allows schools to create safety plans that will actually be effective.
“For contact tracing, you have to isolate that person as quickly as possible, and you need to identify those people they have been in contact with to get them tested and potentially isolated,” explains Lee. “The longer you leave that, there are more individuals potentially in touch with the infected person.”
Given the need for social distancing, mask-wearing and other safety measures, life on campus won’t look or feel “normal” by any stretch of the imagination. But MMA’s True says everyone on campus is committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect each other.
“We can put up with this, even though it’s not what we enjoy doing, because our eyes are on the prize,” she says.
Cashman sees concrete educational benefits from the testing strategies JAX and MMA have put in place. “The steps we took in conjunction with JAX have allowed us to turn our focus away from the pandemic and onto training and educating the students,” he says.
True says that while MMA has made remote learning an option for students, most are excited to return to campus. “Students want to have face to face interactions—they want to learn in small classes and have socially distanced time with colleagues,” she says. “They want to be here in person.”
Even as testing continues and students return to MMA, JAX researchers and administrators are continuing to refine processes and come up with new solutions to lower costs and increase testing capacity. For example, JAX scientists are working on the possibility of implementing saliva-based testing, which would remove the need for a medical professional to collect samples, lowering transmission risk and saving costs and protective equipment.
“Our team has already solved so many logistical and scientific problems throughout this process, and I’m confident that we will keep making new advances,” says Lee.
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