Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez speaks Monday at the groundbreaking ceremony of a new public health lab in Edinburg. (Courtesy: Hidalgo County/Facebook)

EDINBURG — Responding to future health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic will soon become less burdensome in Hidalgo County with the construction of the county’s own public health laboratory.

County officials here marked the groundbreaking of the new Hidalgo County Public Health Laboratory, a 10,000-square-foot facility that has been in the works for the past two years.

“COVID-19 hit us all like a ton of bricks,” said Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres. “As a worldwide pandemic, it exposed our community, it exposed our state and our world to what can happen when we’re not prepared.”

Without a public health lab of their own, the county would have to send samples to other labs, near and far.

“We have to send all our lab specimens, all our information, to Harlingen or to Austin or even to Atlanta or Fort Collins, and sometimes it takes several weeks to get results,” said Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer with Hidalgo County Health and Human Services.

“Here, what we could do is — working hand in hand with the state, working hand in hand with our local partners — we could pre-screen, we could pre-assess any particular outbreak in an area, not only from COVID or its variants but any other viral issue, bacterial issue,” Olivarez said. “We’ll have the capacity to deal with virology, bacteriology, microbiology, histology as well.”

The facility will be a Biosafety Level 2+ Lab with the capability of upgrading to Biosafety Level 3, if needed.

“We’ll be able to do large scale studies and reviews of any particular outbreak in our community,” he said, noting that this is not the type of lab where the public can go to get lab work done.

“This is if there was, for example, a mumps outbreak or some type of bacterial infection outbreak in the community,” he said. “We could test a whole neighborhood or test a whole community then bring all that data here and work hand in hand with the state to determine an intervention if something needs to be done.”

Some of the requirements for a Level 2 lab are that access to the laboratory is restricted when work is being conducted, appropriate personal protective equipment is worn, and all procedures that can cause infection from aerosols or splashes are performed within a biological safety cabinet.

County officials marked the groundbreaking of the new Hidalgo County Public Health Laboratory, a 10,000-square-foot facility that has been in the works for the past two years. (Courtesy: Hidalgo County/Facebook)

The lab also has self-closing doors and a sink and eyewash are readily available, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Level 3 lab builds on that. Laboratory staff are under medical surveillance and must receive immunizations for the microbes they work with. Also, access to the lab is restricted and controlled at all times.

Hands-free sink and eyewash are available near the exit of a Level 3 lab, exhaust air can’t be recirculated, the lab must have sustained directional airflow by drawing air into the lab from clean areas toward potentially contaminated ones. Also, the entrance to the lab is accessed through two sets of self-closing and locking doors.

In addition to the public health benefits, the health lab is expected to create about 25 new jobs including a lab director, a laboratory information management specialist, microbiologists as well as medical assistants and nurses in the future, Olivarez said.

“We’re going to have to hire those people that UTRGV provides and produces,” he said. “The students that are here today will hopefully be some of those people so there’s an economic driver behind this. Not a big workforce driver, but a specialty workforce driver.”

Construction of the lab is expected to be completed in 15 months, barring any delays due to supply chain issues.

For the project, the Hidalgo County commissioners court agreed to enter into a contract with Econ Construction for a total of $5.7 million.

“We’re the seventh most populated county in Texas and here, counties that are half our size or a third of our size have had labs for 20-30 years,” Olivarez said. “We finally are going to get our own lab to do our own public health investigations.”