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Fort Payne company begins testing for COVID-19

A Fort Payne company began running tests for COVID-19 Monday, one of what’s likely to be many new testing companies to take up coronavirus testing as the pandemic spreads. 

Gene Cleckler, owner of DTPM and its subsidiary Tide Laboratories, said his company could test 5,000 samples for COVID-19 by the end of the week. Still, dwindling stocks of some medical supplies make it hard for Cleckler to make predictions about what happens after that. 

“Eventually we’ll run out of supplies,” Cleckler said. “It’s getting hard to find supplies already.” 

Cleckler is not the typical biotech company CEO. In 1993, he founded Family Life Center, a DeKalb County nonprofit drug treatment center. He started his for-profit medical testing company to meet a demand for drug testing at similar centers. The company now helps doctors’ offices and drug courts set up labs in order to do their own medical and drug testing. 

Cleckler’s company earlier this month announced that it had developed a test that would use a process called polymerase chain reaction to identify coronavirus genes. He said the company developed the test using data released by Chinese scientists; one thing he needed was approval to obtain an actual sample of coronavirus to make sure the test was accurate. 

Federal officials obliged, Cleckler said, and by Friday the company’s test was ready. He said the company tested its first 300 samples Monday. His clients include a laboratory in Colorado, one in Atlanta and three in Louisiana, he said. He said he has also been in talks with local hospitals, though he declined to say which ones.

“We’ve been inundated with requests,” he said.

Attempts to reach officials of Regional Medical Center in Anniston, which last week began testing through two private companies and Alabama’s state lab, were not immediately successful. 

As of Monday morning, 1,832 Alabama residents had been tested for the virus, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health. Of those 196 have tested positive. State and federal officials have warned the public to brace for higher numbers as testing expands — and patients have often complained of long waiting times, both for getting tested and for getting results. 

Cleckler said his lab can test a sample in about two hours. But there’s more to the testing process than what goes on in his lab. 

“We don’t have a lot of control over when the sample gets to the lab,” he said. He said samples can go bad if it takes more than 72 hours to get them to a laboratory. 

Proper transportation of samples does seem to be a problem. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox last week said that hundreds of samples from Tuscaloosa County — not samples that were sent to Cleckler’s lab —  had been ruined. State health officer Scott Harris said in a Monday press conference that the samples hadn’t been transported properly. 

“The main problem was refrigeration, or a lack of refrigeration,” Harris said. 

Cleckler said there were a number of potential “fail points” in the testing process. One was a shortage of swabs for collecting samples. The other is a potential shortage of “extraction kits” used after the sample is collected. 

Cleckler said he’s been practicing social distancing for about 10 days. He said he’s worried that others aren’t taking the disease and the consequences of its spread seriously enough. He said it’s best for everyone to act as if they and the people they meet have the disease, and to keep a safe distance. 

“I’m 58 and I’m healthy, but I don’t want to spread it,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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