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Big Changes for the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory

By Kara MacKeil, associate specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response, APHL

According to recent census estimates, Washington DC has a population of 632,323 people. On a workday, however, there are at least 800,000 additional people in the city due to commuters who live in Maryland and Virginia. Add all of the tourists visiting the nation’s capital, and daytime DC is a city of more than 1 million people. Although only roughly 100 square miles, daytime DC has more people than Vermont (626,011), Wyoming (576,412), Alaska (731,449), South Dakota (833,354), or North Dakota (699,628), and is about equal with Rhode Island (1,050,292) and Montana (1,005,141).

Big Changes for the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory |

In public health terms, this means a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness and response in addition to the everyday management of core public health laboratory functions, such as testing for sexually transmitted infections, foodborne illness and more. For the past few years, the DC Public Health Laboratory has dealt with everything that came its way while working out of a small temporary facility. Fortunately, in the fall of 2012, the staff moved into a larger, brand-new, state-of-the-art laboratory.

Part of the reason for this move is that the public health laboratory has been transferred from the Department of Health to the newly created Department of Forensic Sciences. The new facility, located in the heart of DC not far from the Capitol, also houses sections of the police department, the Chief Medical Examiner, and other agencies within the mayor’s office. The main motivation for the move is that the old lab space was just too small to meet the testing demands of a public health laboratory serving more than a million people.

The APHL public health preparedness and response team toured the new facility last May with Dr. Alpha Diallo, deputy director, DC Public Health Laboratory, and other senior members of the DC laboratory. The APHL team had visited the facility once before, during construction in the summer of 2012, and were very impressed with the finished facility.  The building is LEED Gold-Certified, meaning construction materials and furnishings are sustainably produced; appliances, computers and other machines were chosen for conservative energy use; and there’s a focus on conscientious use of resources. One of the most visible features of the LEED principle is the bank of cantilevered window shades on the exterior of the building, covering the glass wall that exposes workstations on most of the floors, including the public health laboratory. These dark glass shades are controlled by sensors that open or close them depending on available sunlight, conserving heat and energy and helping to maintain a steady temperature inside the building.  LEED building techniques are becoming very popular in laboratory construction, as they save significant amounts of funding and resources over the long term and create beautiful, highly functional working environments.

Now that the move is complete, laboratory leadership is well positioned to improve their capabilities and increase their staff, taking best advantage of the new space. There are high hopes that the improved facilities will attract lots of new talent and student interns.

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