Dr. Jennifer Hunt
Together for Florida

A look inside UF’s pathology labs with Dr. Jennifer Hunt

Before COVID-19 exploded across the globe, pathology labs operated largely behind the scenes. But with the arrival of the pandemic, pathology has taken center stage, particularly when it comes to testing.

“Everyone in the nation now knows who pathologists are, and they know that the lab is doing important and critical work,” said Jennifer Hunt, M.D., newly appointed chair of the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine. “They know that pathology plays a role supporting the entire infrastructure of the clinical enterprise. Even though we always provided critically important diagnostic testing for our patients and our students, before the pandemic, it was kind of a well-kept secret.”

A major focus of the department is supporting the UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect initiative, which prioritizes safety for students, faculty and staff throughout the campus. The testing component is heavily dependent on the department’s two main laboratories: the UF Health Medical Lab – Rocky Point and the UF Health Medical Lab – Shands Hospital.

“If we did not have Screen, Test & Protect and the capacity to test as we do, I don’t think our students would be nearly as protected,” said Hunt, who arrived this summer at UF after serving as the chair of pathology and laboratory services at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Hunt cited the reputation of UF’s pathology labs as a motivating factor in her decision to relocate.

“That’s part of what drew me here,’’ she said, “the capabilities of our reference labs and the amazing and talented staff who work with us.’’

UF’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put those staffers to the test in recent months.

Hunt noted lab teams are working tirelessly to deliver fast results for the people awaiting answers: positive, or negative?

“We have almost a production line with lots of people, instruments and processes that all need to work in concert to make sure specimens get processed and resulted as quickly as possible,” Hunt said.

The recent addition of saliva testing for COVID-19 at UF has impacted the labs as well. The pathology team is working to provide excellent, innovative care to patients, including processing saliva testing. This new testing option is available to anyone on campus.

“Collecting saliva is a lot easier on the students,” Hunt said, “and it is the same highly sensitive test and the same time frame to get results back.”

Hunt said she is impressed with the pathology team’s ability to drop into a site at any moment and return results quickly. Coupled with the Screen, Test & Protect program’s extensive testing and contact tracing efforts, it has been a game changer, she said.

“I think it’s exceptional,’’ she said. “We are really lucky. No, actually, we’re not lucky; we just have a team that is really good.”

By Lily Rucci