When COVID came calling, Brookfield school official acted

Ogden Ave. lab runs tens of thousands of student/faculty saliva tests weekly

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By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

After Brookfield resident Ed Campbell started a COVID-19 saliva screening program for LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 – where he's also on the school board -- at the start in August, the professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola Medicine began getting a lot of phone calls. 

At first it was news outlets, but then other school districts began calling and emailing wanting to know they could participate in the testing program. 

However, the small lab set up inside Barnsdale Road School in LaGrange Park quickly reached capacity after taking on Riverside Elementary School District 96 and LaGrange District 105. 

With interest in saliva tests mounting, Campbell decided to take the plunge and create a company to do tests for other school districts.

Campbell turned to two friends from his high school days at Lyons Township High School, and they formed a company they named SafeGuard Surveillance. 

"These schools were calling us up asking for a solution, and this was really the only way," Campbell said.

Campbell found a building at 9300 Ogden Ave. in Brookfield that had housed a precision parts company that had operated a lab in the building.

"They had just ideally suited lab space, some rooms on their own ventilation systems and other things," Campbell said. "We were able to slide in there and start going in a way that was a small miracle." 

Campbell quickly signed a lease, began buying equipment -- including four PCR machines that cost $45,000 each -- and he hired a staff that has grown to about 15 people.

"Luckily, we've been able to find some really good people with a lot of good lab experience," Campbell said. "We've taken the model of kind of overpaying, because we realize it's not a job with long-term security."

In October, SafeGuard signed up its first big customer, New Trier High School. Other contracts quickly followed and now SafeGuard performs tests for about 30 school districts.

Last week, SafeGuard ran about 25,000 tests and by next week Campbell said the company may run up to 42,000 for the school districts, which deliver the saliva samples to the Brookfield lab.

Since New Trier signed on, other large districts have followed, including Oak Park and River Forest High School, Stevenson High School, Naperville District 203 and Wheaton District 200.

"We're very pleased to offer this weekly screening to our students and staff," said Niki Dizon, the director of communications at New Trier High School. "It's an extra layer of protection and mitigation in addition to everything else we're practicing."

Dizon says saliva testing has identified asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus every week since testing began in November and has been important in allowing New Trier to sustain a hybrid learning model.

"It's been very effective for us," Dizon said. "We are identifying a handful of students every week. It definitely adds to our level of confidence that we are able to keep our school buildings safe. It's one more metric we can look at and not just have to be reliant on external metrics like what's happening in our township and our county."

The contract with New Trier could be worth up to $1.3 million and newly inked contract with OPRF could be worth up to $413,000. SafeGuard charges $11 per test, less than some competitors. 

Campbell said that only about 0.2 percent of the samples tested by his company come back positive. When that happens the lab notifies the school district, which then contacts the student/family or staff member, and asks that the person get a diagnostic COVID test. The saliva test is considered a screening test, not an approved diagnostic test.

Campbell partners in the business are LaGrange District 105 school board member Elyse Hoffenberg and her husband, Jeff Hoffenberg, as well as Campbell's best friend from high school, John Carroll. They put in approximately $300,000 of their own money to get the business off the ground.

"We had a little bit of risk tolerance in the group that allowed us to do it," Campbell said. "Luckily, we were able to scrounge up enough cash just laying around. We have talked our clients into paying in advance for our tests, which allowed us to monetize pretty quickly."

Campbell went to LTHS with Carroll and Elyse Hoffenberg. They graduated in 1993.

"I've been friends with both of them for 20 years, and when you pop something like this up you need to have people that you know and trust," Campbell said. "It just seemed like it was meant to be."

Elyse and Jeff Hoffenberg are both lawyers, so they handle that aspect of the business. Carroll, who has a background in computer programming and information technology, handles much of the logistics and scheduling, leaving Campbell to focus on the science.

Campbell has kept his day job of teaching and doing research at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine, so he now essentially has two full-time jobs.

"The thing I'm not doing as much is sleeping," Campbell said. "I figure I have five months of this in me. … For the time being I'll do what needs to be done." 

Campbell said SafeGuard is going to be profitable, but he doesn't expect to get rich and didn't start the company primarily to make money.

"Really our goal is to keep schools safe," Campbell said. "If schools need us the entire semester, I think it'll be a profitable company. If vaccines get rolled out and people don't need us, maybe we don't make too much money but don't lose money. That would be fine with me." 

He's looking forward to pandemic being brought under control and hopefully shutting down the business this summer.

"The plan is in June or July we can go out of business and return to our daily lives," said Campbell, who was recently voted faculty member of the year for outstanding teaching and mentorship at the Stritch School of Medicine. "I'm happy to do it because I know it's helping people, but I can't wait to quit my job and go back to my regular day job."

Campbell is still getting regular inquiries from school districts about having SafeGuard do saliva testing for them, but he's not sure how many more customers the company can take on.

"At this point we're needing to put people on a waitlist, because we are worried about our bandwidth and capacity," Campbell said.

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