CHICAGO (WCIA) — The University of Illinois system is preparing for the next pandemic with a facility that officials said will train lab technicians and serve as the center of the state’s future response.

SHIELD Illinois is opening a new $3.5 million lab at the University of Illinois Chicago. Under normal circumstances, officials said, the lab will house the Clinical Laboratory Development Program. But it can and will convert to a pandemic response lab should the state need it.

Officials said that one of the biggest challenges they faced at the height of COVID-19 was having a shortage of clinically trained staff.

“SHIELD Illinois is working to ensure that the state of Illinois is ready for the next public health emergency,” said Beth Heller, SHIELD Illinois’ director of external relations. “We are stockpiling supplies and preparing labs that can convert back to pandemic response labs if needed, training new laboratory technicians, and providing funding for pandemic response research. With this long-term commitment, it is clear that the University of Illinois System is ready to be a smart and responsive partner to the state in the face of whatever challenge our public health sector will face next.”

Officials said that as SHIELD Illinois pivots from pandemic response to pandemic preparedness, it is stockpiling over half a million testing kits (vials, labels, funnels and other components) and keeping its Eectronic Medical Records reporting system online and ready to go.

In addition, SHIELD Illinois is funding and equipping COVID response research products with both a $1.5 million grant pool and the permanent donation of lab-ready equipment to public universities around the state. If there comes a time where the equipment is needed, officials said labs can switch to emergency production in only days.

To date, SHIELD Illinois processed close to 7.2 million COVID PCR tests across 13 labs and 13 funnel sites, averaging 16 hours from sample submission to results being sent. Close to 18,00 K-12 schools had access to the testing program, accommodating over 1 million students and staff.