Creighton University and CHI Health to begin COVID variant testing

Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 10:23 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 7, 2021 at 10:34 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (Press Release) - The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with Creighton University and its clinical partner, CHI Health, to perform COVID variant testing.

Nebraska DHHS and the School of Medicine at Creighton have engaged in a contract to test all positive COVID-19 positive PCR results from CHI Health lab, up to 100 positive COVID-19 samples per week, to determine if the positives samples are a variant of the virus.

When a variant is detected, that case will become a priority for contact tracing, in order to control variant spread. Drs. Maureen Tierney, assistant dean for Public Health at Creighton, and Renuga Vivekanandan, CHI Health chief of Infectious Disease, are providing consultative expertise to the Epidemiology team at DHHS. Tierney urges the public to continue to prevent transmission of the virus.

“As variant strains, which are more easily transmissible and possibly more deadly, become more common, it is more important than ever to encourage vaccination and continuation of wearing masks and social distancing,” said Tierney. “The vaccines appear to be efficacious against most variant strains.”

“This is not a time to let our guard down. Hospitalization rates among younger individuals are increasing due to them being more susceptible to these highly transmissible variant strains. We need to remain vigilant,” said Vivekanandan.

Creighton is one of three labs in the state identifying COVID-19 variants for DHHS. Positive samples from CHI Health COVID-19 testing sites will be examined at Creighton’s lab, through a new state-of-art sequencer that can identify known and unknown variants of the COVID-19 virus.

Creighton’s COVID-19 sequencing team is headed by Michael Belshan, PhD, one of the few medical virologists in Nebraska, and genomics/molecular genetic researcher Holly Stessman, PhD. Both have been performing research on COVID-19 in their laboratory since last summer.

“This is an excellent opportunity that will expand our ongoing studies to track SARS-CoV-2 variation and evolution throughout the entirety of the outbreak, and it will greatly benefit the state’s battle against the virus and its variants,” said Belshan.

Belshan and Stessman have been working closely with Drs. Stephen Cavalieri, technical director of Microbiology at CHI Health, and Joseph Knezetic, technical director of the Molecular Lab, who have provided them with positive COVID-19 specimens from the CHI Health Laboratory at Creighton University Medical Center, for further analysis.

“We are confident that our COVID-19 tests can accurately detect variants. Through our collaboration with Creighton, we can now specifically identify how many and which of our positive samples contain COVID-19 variants,” said Cavalieri.

“This DHHS-Creighton-CHI collaboration will support sequencing more specimens from CHI’s diverse network of facilities throughout the state. Adding Creighton University School of Medicine/CHI Health expertise and capacity to the SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance programs at the Nebraska Public Health Lab and UNMC College of Public Health will expand genomic surveillance capabilities at a time when it’s critically needed,” said Gary J. Anthone, MD, chief medical officer and director of the Division of Public Health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

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