FILE - Bo Watson

Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

(The Center Square) – As Tennessee’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group looks to approve its plan to approve $3.1 billion in federal stimulus spending, one lawmaker has questions about two proposed statewide laboratory projects.

The new labs, which would replace current labs in older facilities, would be located in Nashville and at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Medical Center. The Nashville lab has a $200 million price tag, and the East Tennessee Regional Health Office and Replacement Lab carries an $85 million cost.

Both labs are eligible for funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, but state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, had several questions about the projects, including the locations and the need for two facilities to conduct similar testing.

Tennessee Department of Health officials said redundancy is important in lab work and distance has become less of an obstacle in testing, so it was important to have two facilities capable of doing the testing but not more. Bioterrorism protocols can shut down a facility, and it is important to have a second facility available, health officials said.

The Nashville facility is in charge of statewide newborn screening and programs for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation.

Eric Harkness, the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives within the Department of Health, previously said the requirements for federal and state programs continue to increase above the facility's capacity.

“The facility itself is outside of its operational lifespan,” Harkness said. “These programs continue to require more and more space.”

Harkness said testing requirements have changed significantly over the years, not only with COVID-19 but with requirements for testing at birth; 90,000 children have to be tested at birth each year in Tennessee.

The proposed Knoxville lab would replace the current lab at the University Medical Center in Knoxville, which serves a 15-county area and will serve as an incident command center for the area. 

The Knoxville project is anticipated to take 31 months from start to completion, including design and construction.

Both labs were part of a Department of Health presentation to the group in September on the needs and wants from the department. The group plans to approve the spending at its December meeting and begin the projects in January.

“Because the federal coronavirus recovery funds represent a spending increase outside of the regular budget process, we are required to review for approval the expenditures for the federal funds, which was done over the summer,” Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Communications Director Lola Potter said. “In addition, members of the legislature are part of the financial stimulus group, as they are our partners in making certain these funds are used in a way that reflects Tennessee’s best interests.”

If the Nashville project does not occur, the Department of Health expects facility maintenance costs on the current facilities would continue to grow while lab capacity would be strained and the facility would not be able to provide the requested expanded testing from the CDC.

“With increased demand for more sophisticated testing, such as Whole Genome Sequencing and biomonitoring, that enables public health to identify specific strains of pathogens causing disease and outbreaks, it is imperative that the State Public Health Lab (SPHL) have the appropriate infrastructure to build and maintain this specialized testing in support of outbreak response and containment,” the health department said in its presentation. “It is not possible to predict when the next pandemic will occur; therefore, it is essential to be prepared. The SPHL has helped the state respond to Ebola, Zika, MERS, West Nile, and now COVID-19. The one-time nature of ARP funds presents a unique opportunity to build preparedness for the next pandemic or public health event.”

Staff Reporter

Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.