During a visit to UNH’s COVID-19 testing lab Monday, Oct. 12, U.S. coronavirus response coordinator ambassador Deborah Birx praised UNH for “answering the call” and safely opening campus for in-person learning.
“Your students needed you and you’re one of the institutions in the country that answered that call.”
“I felt by the time she left she was impressed by what we’ve done,” recalls Marc Sedam, UNH vice provost for innovation and new ventures and a leader in operationalizing the lab. “She said, ‘Your students needed you and you’re one of the institutions in the country that answered that call.’”
Straight from a visit to Plymouth State University, where her brother Donald Birx is president, Deborah Birx toured UNH’s lab with Sedam, Kelley Thomas, professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences and scientific director of the lab, Marian McCord, senior vice provost for research, economic engagement and outreach, and Governor Chris Sununu.
A proponent of wide-scale testing, Birx learned about student self-swabbing and the extensive training, tracking and tracing that’s made it successful, resulting in a very low rate of COVID-19 in the UNH community. McCord detailed how results from campus wastewater surveillance, led by associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Paula Mouser, align very closely with individual testing data, supporting its accuracy.
“One of the benefits of being an R1 public research university is the enormous pool of faculty, staff and student talent that we have been able to tap to implement our testing program,” says McCord, co-chair of UNH Testing and Tracing Committee.
“We have been so successful because we have a dedicated staff of professionals who have worked tirelessly to make this work,” adds Thomas. “They amaze me every day.”
Following the tour, the renowned global public health official held two roundtable discussions, one with UNH leaders and a second with five students and Durham town leadership. Birx, who has toured dozens of universities in recent weeks, told President Jim Dean and others that there had not yet been a single recorded case of student-to-faculty transmission of the virus in the U.S. “That made us feel really good,” Sedam says.
Sedam, whose office manages the distribution of student self-swab kits, feels good about UNH’s testing protocol overall. “As of today, we’ve had fewer than 100 students cumulatively test positive,” he says. “We’re testing more frequently, we’re doing it cheaper, we’re doing it more efficiently than almost anyone else. I think it’s the best and most successful testing program in the United States.”
Perhaps most importantly, he points out, UNH is still open.