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This local lab will soon bring more COVID-19 testing to Hall County
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Pro-GeneX, located inside the Business Incubator at Brenau University, will begin testing samples for COVID-19 in June. Through their efforts, the community's capacity for testing will increase by 1,000 tests a day. - photo by Scott Rogers

One Gainesville-based laboratory plans to increase North Georgia’s COVID-19 testing capacity by 1,000 per day. 

Pro-GeneX, a pharmacogenetics company, has expanded its space at the Brenau University Business Incubator and is prepared to open its new services in June. 

Gale Hansen Starich, dean of Ivester College of Health Sciences at Brenau, said she is excited about the additional testing, and understands the critical role it plays in the community. 

“If you look at some of the problems we’re seeing nationwide, it’s something so simple like, ‘How do you open your school district?’ or ‘How do you open your college to residential students?’” she said. “So much of this hinges on testing.”

Dave Palmer, public information officer at the District 2 Public Health office in Gainesville, told The Times on Wednesday, April 29, that Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of DPH, have called for increased testing in Georgia. 

“Testing gives vital information in the fight against COVID-19 by determining whether people who are sick with symptoms, are actually infected with COVID-19 virus,” Palmer said. 

As of 3:25 p.m. on Wednesday, Palmer said the number of people tested in Georgia, which is 143,778, compared to the number of confirmed cases, 25,520, shows that 18% of those tested are positive for the virus. 

“This information can show whether the virus is spreading in the community or if it is slowing,” he said. “Health professionals can then use this information to make better decisions about steps that are needed to keep us all safe and healthy.”

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Pro-GeneX, located inside the Business Incubator at Brenau University, will begin testing samples for COVID-19 in June. Through their efforts, the community's capacity for testing will increase by 1,000 tests a day. - photo by Scott Rogers

Until widespread testing, contact tracing and effective quarantining is in place, Starich said COVID-19 won’t leave Hall County or the country.  

“There are so many issues about this pandemic that really need a focused effort, and one of them is testing, particularly in our county, which seems to be becoming a hot zone,” she said. 

Robbie Rupard, CEO of Pro-GeneX, said during the beginning of the pandemic, he wasn’t sure that COVID-19 testing was a vital service in the community. He soon found out through his company’s connections with long-term care facilities and nursing homes, that the need for testing was growing.

“We knew there was a limited amount of laboratories around the country that were ready to do this,” Rupard said. “We looked at it and immediately realized that we had 99% of the equipment needed to do this. From a technology perspective, we knew we could do it.”

Matt Thomas, Brenau’s vice president of external relations, said the university decided to lease additional space in the Business Incubator for Pro-GeneX’s testing.

“From the Incubator’s perspective, any time a client is able to expand what it’s able to do, it’s always great,” he said. “But it’s doubly great when we have the opportunity to also serve a community need.”

Rupard said his company’s decision to offer more testing wasn’t only prompted by the current need in Northeast Georgia, but the country’s imminent paradigm shift. 

He expects the country will remain infection focused even after the pandemic dies down. 

“Employers are going to have to deal with employees who want to come back to work, but they want to come back to work and not get sick,” Rupard said. “There’s going to be a need for employers to have some certification that someone is clear of the infection. We’re looking at the long-term problem.”

Because Pro-GeneX is already equipped to examine people’s DNA, Rupard said shifting to COVID-19 tests wasn’t a challenge. 

One of the laboratory’s services includes creating a personalized genetic profile from people’s cheek swab samples. After analyzing a person’s DNA, the company then provides a digital report of which medications match well with the patient’s genetic code and which ones might have side effects.

With its three small machines and an area to perform extractions, Rupard said Pro-GeneX is able to run 1,000 tests a day and provide the results within 24 hours or less.

Patients can only access the company’s testing through their medical providers. 

Rupard said he hopes local physicians and Northeast Georgia Health System will take advantage of Pro-GeneX’s services. The company has established a transportation system for picking up the samples and has already started reaching out to Hall’s medical providers. 

“We need to be able to help the employers,” Rupard said. “We need to be able to help the hospital system. We need to keep everything in our own backyard. We’re going to do something really cool for Northeast Georgia, and we’re excited about doing it with Brenau.”