How A Chicago Dad Developed A Coronavirus Testing Program For His Son’s School : NPR

Ed Campbell, a suburban Chicago dad and immunologist, adopted a COVID-19 screening program for his local school district. NPR’s Scott Simon asks him about it.


You want your children back in class, but you want them back safely. What do you do? For one suburban Chicago father, that meant developing a coronavirus testing program at the school of his children. That father is Ed Campbell, and it helps that he teaches microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Chicago. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

EDWARD CAMPBELL: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about what you did. You worked with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin, I gather.

CAMPBELL: Right. So I’d been working in the context of our school district – working with teachers and the superintendent to develop a plan to open safely in the fall, like I’m sure all districts have. And in the course of that time, I became aware of some efforts from a colleague David O’Connor and Shelby O’Connor in Madison. And since, you know – obviously, I picked a weird time to be a molecular virologist on a board of education, but, you know, I was able to kind of take what they were doing and scramble to get everything in place. But somehow it all worked out.

SIMON: How does the test work?

CAMPBELL: Right. So it’s a saliva-based test. And so what the students or teacher participants do is they spit into a small tube. So then they can either bring their sample into school after giving it at home, or we can collect from the older kids right after school, and then we take it into our facility, which is actually – we’ve popped up this testing facility in the science center of our school district. Normally this is where we would bus elementary students to have a tactile learning experience or to pet a snake or to play with rocks, but in 2020, you know, what are you going to do? Wipe down the snake between kids petting it? It’s really kind of on ice right now. So we were able to commandeer that space and pop up a surveillance testing facility that uses this RT-LAMP-based test that has been developed in Madison and also in Colorado.

SIMON: And as I understand, it doesn’t say absolutely whether or not somebody has coronavirus, but it gives markers, right?

CAMPBELL: Absolutely. So it’s certainly fair to say that it’s not as sensitive as a PCR-based test, but the argument is being made that, really, speed and cost are the factors that we want to think about more for surveillance testing.

SIMON: And your test is easier than sticking a Q-tip down somebody’s nose, right?

CAMPBELL: Oh, absolutely. Anytime you’re collecting saliva from anyone, especially a child, it’s a lot easier to provide a saliva sample than it is to undergo one of those nasal swabs, especially in the context of the surveillance that we’re trying to do, right? Those Q-tips can cause quite a bit of irritation when they’re used in a consistent way like that.

SIMON: I gather you’ve got three children – second, fifth and seventh grade, right?


SIMON: They must be very proud. Or do they say our dad’s the reason why you have to spit into a tube every day?

CAMPBELL: In the instructional video that we created to help explain the saliva collection process, my son was a willing volunteer. And now that – since that’s been on the news and everyone has seen it, I think he’s enjoying a little bit of being the spit guy, if you will. There’s a certain amount of celebrity, I guess, that comes with that, but I’m not sure how much it is.

SIMON: Well, to be known as the spit guy when you’re in middle school is pretty good, you know?

CAMPBELL: Right. Yeah. There’s worse things, right? (Laughter).

SIMON: Do you have any advice for schools that, you know, don’t happen to have an immunologist on their board or among their parents?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. This is really just one layer of infection mitigation, right? And the other layers are also just as important, which is, you know, just insisting on masks at all time inside, maintaining that six-foot distancing and practicing good hand hygiene and other things. Those are also really important things that shouldn’t be discounted. You know, obviously, if you have the opportunity to engage in a process of surveillance like this – obviously, I’m a big believer. I’ve just been working on it for the last 40 days, perhaps in some neglect of my normal day job. But, you know, there’s still a lot of things out there that people can and should expect from their school district.

SIMON: Ed Campbell, a professor at Loyola University Chicago and proud father of three LaGrange School District 102 students, including the spit guy.

CAMPBELL: Father of the spit guy – there you go.

SIMON: Thanks very much for being with us.

CAMPBELL: My pleasure.


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