May 31, 2022
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SMYRNA — When Delaware Division of Public Health officials broke ground on the expanded lab on its campus on Sunnyside Road, it was touted that the project would almost double the space for the state’s researchers and scientists.
Four months later, the state is reportedly looking to grow that campus by adding a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) office right next door in tandem to building a new Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill.
Between the DPH lab and the DNREC project alone, that would add or relocate 140 positions to Smyrna, according to state projections.
“Centralizing laboratory operations would enhance collaboration between DPH and DNREC for improved surveillance and response to protect environmental and human health,” DPH Media Relations Coordinator Timothy Turane told the Delaware Business Times. “This approach aligns with [the department’s] goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.”
On May 25, the Smyrna Planning Commission approved adding a three-story wing to the DPH Lab, which would include 28,434 square feet in the second phase of construction. In total, the DPH lab will now be 70,711 square feet in size. The $35 million renovation was projected to be complete by 2023.
About 90 people currently work out of the lab, but once the expansion is done, the state estimates there will be 190 people who will work at that site. Turane said that the figure includes bringing in the infectious disease epidemiology program under the same roof, which has quickly grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, DPH employed 55 people from the Smyrna lab, including administration, technical laboratorians, facilities maintenance, and custodial staff. The Infectious Disease Prevention and Control section alone gained 20 employees over the two years alone.
The renovated lab, paid for through Delaware’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) funds, will increase the capacity for routine and outbreak testing to accommodate advanced technical laboratory staff and the infectious disease epidemiology program.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had kept some of its tests in-house. But with thousands of Delawareans demanding tests and results quickly, Gov. John Carney soon contracted with the private company Curative to launch a comprehensive statewide testing plan.
Nonetheless, the state lab in Smyrna handled about 10% of the COVID-19 tests since the pandemic started. The most it handled was 6,085 tests during the first week of December 2021. But with the new lab space, the state will be able to add two labs for COVID-19 testing, including PCR sequencing.
Although no plans have yet to be filed with the town yet, DNREC has confirmed it will be constructing a new, two-story environmental lab next to the DPH lab, bringing 30 to 40 jobs to the town. The $27 million facility will also include office space as well as a single-story boat maintenance building on Lake Como.
Lab work to be performed in the new DNREC facility entails chemical testing, metals testing, microbiology, molecular biology with lab cleanrooms, water testing and PFAS detection, according to DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti.
The new environmental laboratory is to replace the existing lab located in the DNREC’s Richardson & Robbins building in Dover. Construction completion is targeted for the end of 2024.
Both the DPH lab expansion and the future DNREC facility come on the heels of Carney allocating $55 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding to replace the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill, which is essentially a state-run nursing home. Built for a capacity of 205 patients, it currently houses about 88 patients.
DPH spokeswoman Jill Friedel said that the state will be downsizing beds, but that the state will allow room to add beds for “growth in population from the current census.”
The new facility will be built on the west side of the same 62-acre campus in Smyrna on Sunnyside Road, leaving the building to be repurposed by the state.
The state’s Division of Services for Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities (DSAAPD), which runs the hospital, employs 366 people but not all work in that building.