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UTEP, City of El Paso Sign Agreement to Allow Employees to Assist with Coronavirus Testing

Last Updated on March 31, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published March 31, 2020

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

A new agreement between The University of Texas at El Paso and the City of El Paso will enable UTEP faculty and staff to assist the city’s Department of Public Health in identifying cases of the novel coronavirus.

UTEP Clinical Lab Science Program Director Lorraine Torres, Ed.D., is one of six UTEP employees who will assist El Paso's Department of Public Health with COVID-19 testing. Photo: UTEP Communications
UTEP Clinical Lab Science Program Director Lorraine Torres, Ed.D., is one of six UTEP employees who will assist El Paso's Department of Public Health with COVID-19 testing. She is pictured in a file photo from early 2019. Photo: UTEP Communications

The El Paso City Council approved the 12-month interlocal agreement on March 31, 2020. Per the agreement, the city will reimburse UTEP up to $200,000 for services and equipment. 

“UTEP has always worked with our community to improve health,” said UTEP President Heather Wilson. “We teach Clinical Laboratory Science at UTEP. In fact, I understand that most of the employees at the city lab are UTEP alumni. Our faculty members are ready to help their former students and use their skills to reduce the spread of coronavirus in the community.” ​

Five of the public health department’s laboratory staff are graduates of UTEP’s Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) program.

According to the agreement, UTEP faculty or staff who are trained in nucleic acid extraction and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods, will help the public health department’s laboratory staff to analyze patient samples for COVID-19. They include Lorraine Torres, Ed.D.; Delfina Dominguez, Ph.D.; Elizabeth Camacho; and Laurencia Almeida in UTEP’s CLS program; and Jonathon Mohl, Ph.D., mathematical sciences research assistant professor, and Miguel A. Beltran, biological sciences Ph.D. student.

As of March 30, public health officials reported 46 COVID-19 cases in El Paso County. Three of those cases are UTEP employees and one is a UTEP student.

UTEP employees will help to analyze specimens submitted to the public health department by health care providers who suspect a patient has been infected with the coronavirus. Providers are asked to follow the department’s step-by-step protocol for COVID-19 testing and rule out other sources of illness before contacting the Department of Public Health Epidemiology Program. As part of the process, health care providers will collect a nasal and throat swab, which will then be sent to the public health department for testing.

Once at the lab, scientists will extract RNA, a nucleic acid in cells, from the swabs, which will then be processed through a procedure called PCR to determine if the sample is positive or negative for COVID-19. After the samples have been analyzed, the results will be sent to the health care provider to notify the patient. Positive results will trigger an epidemiological investigation by the Department of Public Health.

“UTEP has scientists with training and expertise in several key areas and can serve as an important resource to the city during this very challenging time,” said College of Health Sciences Dean Shafik Dharamsi, Ph.D.

Torres, CLS program director and a certified medical technologist, is one of four CLS faculty members who will assist with the public health department’s COVID-19 testing.  

She joined the UTEP faculty in 1985 after she graduated from the University’s medical technology (now clinical laboratory science) program.

“As clinical laboratory scientists, we have the knowledge and background to support the City of El Paso’s efforts to address the demand for coronavirus testing during this critical time,” said Torres, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from UTEP and a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Phoenix. “Seventy percent of the medical decisions that physicians make are based on the laboratory test data that clinical and medical laboratory scientists provide. By contributing our knowledge and skills, we are confident that we can help the city navigate through this public health crisis.”

Torres said the agreement also is an example of the CLS program’s longstanding relationship with the city’s public health department, which offers internships to approximately six CLS students per semester. The rotation is two weeks long.  

UTEP faculty will be required to follow the health department’s policies and standards of privacy. They will be expected to work four 10-hour shifts from Sunday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Saturday.

Mohl previously worked as a microbiologist at the public health department, where he was involved in testing for the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009.

“There are two reasons I think helping the health department is important for me,” Mohl said. “The first is that I went through what the city's lab members have gone through, and with the size of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I don't want the lab members to suffer by having to do it by themselves. I have been in their shoes and want to help. Secondly, I think it is a way for me to give back to the city that I live in. It's a way for UTEP and myself to help El Paso get a sense of how widespread COVID-19 is here so that the people can make informed decisions and have confidence in the city leaders as we all deal with the pandemic.”