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Mobile Lab Helps Yale Pathology Establish Relationships, Build Trust with Community

July 09, 2024
by Terence P. Corcoran

A mobile laboratory-in-a-van that brings testing services to underserved Connecticut neighborhoods is enabling Yale Pathology of Yale School of Medicine (YSM) to establish relationships and build trust with community organizations.

The idea behind the mobile laboratory, which Yale Pathology Labs (YPL) and the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) acquired through a federal grant during the COVID-19 pandemic, was to bring much-needed SalivaDirect™ COVID-19 testing to underserved communities.

That effort proved an overwhelming success as YPL used the van to administer far more than the 400-test goal set by the federal RADxUp Grant that funds the van. YPL continues to bring its testing and rapid results throughout underserved communities in New Haven and surrounding shoreline communities.

“That was a very intentional goal,” said Angelique Levi, MD, Associate Professor, Vice Chair, Director of Pathology Reference Services, and CLIA Laboratory Medical Director in the Department of Pathology. “Vulnerable communities are what we were intentionally looking to serve with this grant. We are trying to connect and discover some of the barriers to care.”

Now that the pandemic is over, YPL leadership sees the mobile lab as a great way to continue creating and strengthening associations with grassroots organizations and the people they serve.

“We are making great strides in building relationships in the community. It started slow and requires trust. But they’re seeing us out more and they are trusting us,” said Stephanie Weirsman, YPL’s Director of Reference Service Business Development. “The relationships we’ve built with community partners have been the biggest help in forging those gaps.”

“We have definitely seen that Yale, as a big name, would typically not be accepted by the people we are now serving in underserved communities because they view Yale as a big entity that is not going to see them as an individual,” said Kyle Preston, Reference Services Laboratory Program Coordinator. “But when we go out to the community, we’re serving them as individuals, and they really appreciate that.”

YPL has established a strong relationship with WHEAT, a food pantry serving the West Haven community for 50 years. The mobile lab visits WHEAT twice weekly, offering PCR-based COVID-19 testing, on-site test results, and healthcare advice to community members.

“We’ve loved our partnership with Yale and with SalivaDirect™. It’s been a really valuable service for our clients because they have more concerns than just food – access to healthcare, access to testing,” said Michael Savenelli, Executive Director of WHEAT. “So to have something on site, that is free, where they are able to just walk in and get tested, meant everything. It was also great because (YPL) acted as a referral source for us. Yale came here because we serve so many people. But what ended up happening was that as news spread about Yale’s program within the community, people started to come for the testing. Then while they came for the testing, they signed up for the food pantry. So it’s been this wonderfully mutual relationship that has really benefitted the people we serve.”

Anne Wyllie, PhD, a research scientist at YSPH who developed the saliva-based PCR test, established relationships and secured initial funding to acquire a van retrofitted for PCR laboratory testing, then approached YPL. YSPH and YPL collaborated on the saliva-based test that Dr. Wyllie developed, with the YPL Molecular Lab providing clinical validation needed to get the testing method ready for emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Dr. Levi is principal investigator and Dr. Wyllie is co-investigator of the federally funded mobile lab research grant.

“This institution has such an outward look – we are really trying to do what we can globally to help communities all over the world, but I do think that it’s very important that we also try to help our local community,” Dr. Wyllie said. “If we can set up more testing opportunities, more surveillance opportunities, help create more health awareness throughout our local community, then we as an entire community can also be stronger.”

Frank Silva, Chief Operating Officer of Alliance For Living (AFL), a New London-based organization that helps people living with HIV, homelessness, or substance abuse disorder, said the van’s presence enables AFL to fulfill its mission to ensure equitable healthcare. He said the van’s mobility is an added benefit, as there isn’t reliable public transportation in their area.

“We are thankful for this partnership and look forward to working with (Yale) to ensure the people who need a COVID test can get one,” Mr. Silva said.

“I would say it’s been very successful. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to engage with folks we normally wouldn’t engage with,” Dr. Levi said. “We’ve gone out to neighborhoods, food insecurity events. We’ve gone to other organizations that have helped those in need. So, from a standpoint of reaching out to people who we wouldn’t have normally encountered, that in and of itself is a success.”

So, with COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, what’s down the road for the mobile lab?

“We cannot only deliver diagnostic care, whether around COVID or infectious diseases in a pandemic, but we can also deliver care from a screening and population health perspective,” Dr. Levi said. “Preventative care and education is another huge advantage the mobile lab provides in reaching people in their communities – disseminating information about high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking cessation, and diabetes are just a few examples. At the same time, we have a nationally designated comprehensive cancer center at Yale and screening for cancer is another big avenue of potential – natural fits would be oral health screenings and skin checks, especially given the Yale Cancer Center (YCC) Specialized Programs of Research and Excellence (SPORE) in Skin Cancer and Head & Neck Cancer. Bringing Yale’s leading-edge expertise to our local communities in need is the goal. So, we are hopeful that we can continue to secure funding to use the mobile lab to reach those vulnerable populations for overall health education, preventative care, and early detection of cancer and pre-cancerous states as well.”

Submitted by Terence P. Corcoran on July 09, 2024