MTU to double testing capacity for COVID-19 with gift from Portage Health Foundation

Copper Country

HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – Back in April, Michigan Technological University (MTU) opened a COVID-19 testing lab that could test 40 samples per hour on two machines. Seven months later, their testing abilities have quickened and expanded.

With a gift from Portage Health Foundation (PHF), MTU’s lab will soon be able to process nearly twice as many tests in half the time and with less personnel.

PHF has gifted a KingFisher Flex System RNA extractor.

Caryn Heldt, a professor of chemical engineering, director of MTU’s Health Research Institute (HRI), and one of the COVID-19 lab’s technical leads, said the RNA extractor “has the capacity of processing 96 samples per run, which doubles the number of samples we currently do.”

“Using the RNA extractor, we’ll be able to process 400 tests a day, with just four technicians over the same two shifts,” said Heldt.

With the current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, the lab needs 12 people over the course of two shifts to process 200 tests a day.

MTU also received a Laboratory Information System (LIS) software package to streamline reporting of test results between the COVID-19 Testing Lab and the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center (UGL).

With the LIS software package, “the test results will automatically be logged to UGL rather than have to be manually entered.”

“PHF’s purchases for the lab were a pleasant surprise,” Heldt said, “and one we are all very grateful for having received.”

To date, the lab has run almost 14,000 tests. Of those, 63% were community samples and 37% were Tech samples.

“I’ve rarely seen such a diverse group come together, solve an incredible range of problems, and work tirelessly to achieve a goal,” Dave Reed, Vice President of Research said. “We have to continue to tackle COVID-19 as a community. The Foundation’s purchase of the RNA extraction equipment and software helped to solve the current capacity problem our community was facing.”

The $142,359 investment by PHF came from its COVID-19 Community Recovery Fund, which is a restricted fund specifically created to help the people in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties recover from the ongoing pandemic.

PHF Executive Director Kevin Store said, “Most communities our size do not have the types of partnerships we have to be able to collaboratively respond in times of need. This collective effort ensures our community testing is expanded in a meaningful and appropriate way to keep our community and our economy safely opened.”

“COVID-19 created a need for Michigan Tech to harness our world class faculty and research capacity and an opportunity to collaborate with PHF, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, state and local healthcare systems, businesses and corporate partners to ensure the well-being of all Copper Country residents,” said Bill Roberts, Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Engagement.

  • Other contributions to the COVID-19 lab and community testing efforts include:
  • 10,000 face shields and 50,000 face masks from Ford
  • $73,000 in powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) equipment for lab and hospital use, along with PAPR equipment training, from Dow
  • $4,300 in hand sanitizer (equal to 600 bottles) from Kimberly-Clark

UP Health System – Portage, Aspirus, MTEC SmartZone, UPPCO, and the Physiological Society have sponsored the UP COVID-19 Townhall Series hosted by Steve Elmer and Kelly Kamm, two of Michigan Tech’s Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology faculty and Health Research Institute members. For more information, visit

“The equipment, funding, in-kind gifts, and collaboration from all of our partners has made an amazing difference for our community. Thank you to all,” said Roberts.

For more information about how to support Michigan Tech’s COVID-19 Testing Laboratory and community testing efforts, call (906) 487-3325 or email

To make a donation to the PHF Covid-19 Community Recovery Fund, visit

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