Libertyville hosting free COVID testing next two weekends

HRI Labs CEO and chief scientist John Fagan holds a vial containing a saliva sample that will be tested for COVID-19. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
HRI Labs CEO and chief scientist John Fagan holds a vial containing a saliva sample that will be tested for COVID-19. (Andy Hallman/The Union)

LIBERTYVILLE — The Libertyville Fire Station will host a pair of clinics for people to get free COVID-19 tests.

The clinics will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 and Sunday, Feb. 28. The tests will be conducted by the Health Research Institute of Fairfield, which will process the results within 24 hours.

The free testing is limited to people who either live or work in Libertyville, so guests are asked to bring a photo ID. They are asked to wear a mask and to observe social distancing guidelines.

Participants will be tested for COVID-19 by having their saliva analyzed for the presence of the virus, so they are asked not to eat for 30 minutes before testing and not to drink water for 10 minutes before testing. Everyone who lives or works in Libertyville is invited to participate even if they have no COVID-19 symptoms. HRI expects to administer about 400 tests. Appointments are not necessary.

The event is sponsored by the Libertyville City Council and was made possible through a contribution from an anonymous donor.

Health Research Institute

The Health Research Institute specializes in testing food, water, soil and the human body for the presence of various toxins and nutrients. This can include analyzing a person’s urine to see how much pesticide is in it.

John Fagan, co-founder and chief scientist at HRI, said the business began performing COVID tests last August, starting with students at Maharishi International University. The university needed to test the students who arrived on campus to ensure they were not bringing the coronavirus with them.

HRI continues to perform tests for the university when a new batch of students arrives or when students return from a break. It’s expanded to perform tests for other entities, and now does all the COVID tests for athletes at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Fagan said he’s making arrangements to perform tests at Jefferson County Health Center, too, and is open to doing tests for any company that asks.

The test

HRI’s senior COVID technician John Pielemeier said scientists have switched from a nasal swab to a saliva sample for COVID testing. He said scientists believed at the beginning of the pandemic that a nasal swab would yield the best results by capturing the virus closer to the source, since it is a respiratory infection. However, in the ensuing months, they learned that the uncomfortable procedure of taking a sample from the back of the nasal cavity was unnecessary. Pielemeier said that simply asking a person to spit in a vial yields a sample at least as good if not better than the nasal swab.

“The saliva tests seem to contain more viral materials,” Pielemeier said.

Pielemeier said the nasal tests created delays because the testing equipment returned inconclusive results, unsure whether a sample had COVID or not. He said that has been less of a problem with the saliva samples.

“The new tests reports ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and not ‘maybe,’” he said.

Small amount

The test does not require much saliva to get a result. With a sample of just 1/1,000th of a teaspoon of saliva, 5 microliters to be exact, the machine can detect as few as two copies of the virus. Even that small amount of saliva can contain thousands of copies of the COVID virus. The saliva is mixed with an even smaller amount of enzyme, 2.5 microliters, which causes the virus to fall apart and thus allows scientists to examine its core where it stores its genetic material, its RNA.

A virus works by attaching itself to a cell, inserting its RNA into the cell, which reprograms the cell to make copies of the virus. Eventually, the virus destroys the cell and copies of the virus are then released to infect more cells.

When HRI is testing a batch of samples, it includes a sample that contains COVID. If the machine cannot detect COVID even on this sample, the scientists know the machine is not working.

Fagan said the machine can detect how many copies of the virus are present in a sample by how early the virus is detected during the hourlong procedure. A person with a low number of virus copies in their sample could mean they are in the early stages of the infection, and Fagan said it’s especially important for them to know they are infected so they can begin quarantining and inform others they’ve come in contact with that they may be infected. Fagan said the contagious stage of the infection starts four to five days after exposure and lasts about seven days.

Fagan said the lab is just now setting up an antibody test, which determines whether a person has been infected with COVID.