SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - On the second floor of the the LSU Health Sciences Center, two small placards are stuck to a nondescript door. One reads “RESTRICTED AREA”, the other “EVT LAB”.
However, through this ordinary entrance way, extraordinary people remain steadfast at work in the trenches of an only escalating coronavirus crisis in northwest Louisiana.
This is the Emerging Viral Threat (EVT) Lab.
“If the EVT Lab had not existed, quite frankly, I think we’d be in a much darker place here in the northern part of the state,” said Dr. Chris Kevil, vice chancellor of research and one of the leading minds behind creation of the lab. “The EVT Lab has been fundamental in our ability to monitor COVID infections in patients out in this community.”
The lab was developed in a matter of days in late March by leading health experts at LSU Health Shreveport, as COVID-19 began spreading like wildfire around the world. The lab had support from Governor John Bel Edwards, LSU Health Sciences Center Chancellor Dr. G.E. Ghali, as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
“This event and this pandemic really highlights the value and the importance of an academic medical center,” Dr. Kevil added.
Since the inception of the EVT Lab, nearly 189,000 PCR coronavirus tests have been processed on-site. The tests have come from 58 of 64 parishes, which accounts for 90% of the state.
Dr. Jennifer Carrol, clinical director of the EVT Lab, says this laborious and repetitive work is critical to understand how the virus continues to move throughout Louisiana.
“We start at 7:15, sometimes earlier, and we wrap up around 8 o’clock at night,” she explained. “It’s six days a week usually, and it’s go, go, go all day long.”
Carrol says the EVT Lab, on average, processes between 8,000 and 9,000 COVID-19 tests per week. She explains the lab also processes tests for 96% of nursing homes in Region 7, which is comprised of nine parishes in northwest Louisiana.
“I think we’re very lucky to have LSU Health in Shreveport to support our community and to try and root out COVID,” she said. “Without it, I can’t imagine the consequences.”
Thousands of community coronavirus tests, conducted through a series of “strike teams” keep the EVT Lab fed daily.
“We typically have three to four ‘Strike Teams’ per day going out into the field,” said Dr. John Vanchiere, director of COVID-19 community and congregant testing. “We go as far south as Natchitoches and Many and Sabine and as far north and Homer and Plain Dealing.”
With Dr. Vanchiere at the helm of the mammoth testing operation, alongside his strike team partners, those living and working in medically underserved communities, as well as first responders and government agencies, have had access to these irreplaceable COVID-19 tests.
“We have a very good and near real-time understanding of what virus activity is occurring in our community and where it’s occurring,” Dr. Vanchiere explained.
This aggressive and frequent community testing of nursing homes has resulted in near microscopic levels of the virus for those most at-risk.
“The lab has also really helped reduce the amount of COVID activity in our nursing homes. We’ve been sitting at right about 1% positivity rate,” he added. “The few that are positive are actually employees, not residents.”
Dr. Andrew Yurochko, the executive director of the EVT Lab, says the operation has grown by leaps and bounds since its creation in March.
“Where we started with just a few researchers and using our own lab personnel,” he said “we now have all of the modern equipment, fancy robots, and well-trained staff.”
Aside from testing, the EVT Lab is also credited with providing the first convalescent plasma therapy in Louisiana and was among the top five sites to offer such a service across the country. On behalf of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH), the EVT Lab is also conducting a “majority of the molecular and serology testing in the northern half of the state.”
Though spearheading the lab, Dr. Yurochko believes it takes a village to keep this complex combination of highly-skilled personnel and expensive tools moving forward.
“It’s all the people, from the janitors to the delivery staff, people have worked around the clock,” he explained. “They have made so many sacrifices to be here, this is really a team effort from many people within the institution.”
The EVT Lab is also playing offense against COVID-19′s spread through genomic sequencing, which, according to Dr. Jeremy Kamil, is allowing medical, government, and school leaders to have a clear picture of where the virus has come from and where it could be going next - possibly saving lives.
“So that lets public health experts and doctors trace who infected who, and whether the virus is moving into Louisiana from say Florida or California,” Dr. Kamil, the leader of the EVT Lab’s genomic testing function, explained. “If there’s an outbreak in a school and there are six students who are sick, you can find out if the virus spread in the school because all six students would have the same virus.”
Dr. Kamil says he’s proud to be just one part of a larger mission to protect public health amid one of the most devastating moments in modern history.
“It’s really nice to see people place their own interests second and the public interest first,” he said. “This is really about getting together, solving a problem, and doing it in a very efficient way.”
So once vaccines roll out and the pandemic is better wrangled, what’s next for the EVT Lab?
According to Lisa Babin, executive director of communications for LSU Health Shreveport, on Dec. 4, the LSU Board of Supervisors unanimously granted five-year approval for the Center of Emerging Viral Threats (CEVT) as a Center of Excellence, which is still pending approval from the Louisiana Board of Regents.
The institution hopes to use the CEVT to address future viral threats, including expanding and developing testing for pandemics.
“I think if we’re prepared and have testing, diagnostics, and research, we not only serve our citizens of Shreveport and northwest Louisiana, but also this whole region of the country.”
According to LDH, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, the state saw 4,339 new cases and 32 new deaths from the virus, with 1,537 people hospitalized, and 177 on ventilators.