- The Washington Times
Sunday, May 17, 2020

The first saliva test for COVID-19 was a breakthrough when Rutgers University announced it last month, but now it’s even more convenient: You can spit into the funnel from the comfort of your home.

In the Beltway region, Potomac Pediatrics started offering antibody tests May 11 to people who wanted to see whether they or their family members had been exposed to the coronavirus and didn’t know it.

A positive result doesn’t confer proof of immunity — scientists are still studying that — though the blood draw gets families out of the house and is covered by insurance.

“All of them are curious,” said Jenna Vallejo, chief operating officer at the office in Rockville, Maryland.

Georgia is urging everyone in the state to undergo testing for the virus at one of its 100 sites, regardless of whether they have symptoms. Pennsylvania last week added nine CVS locations to its testing roster, meaning it now has roughly 270 retail and drive-thru locations statewide.

After early stumbles and scrambles, testing for COVID-19 or an immune response to the disease is getting more convenient and easier to find.

The U.S. is testing about 350,000 people per day, more than double the daily average from mid-April, and federal regulators are bringing new diagnostics and antibody, or “serological,” tests to market every day.

Diagnostic testing is a critical piece of the campaign to slow transmission of the coronavirus. Disease trackers test people with symptoms to determine whether they have COVID-19 and then track down their contacts and test them, too. Anyone infected with the coronavirus must isolate themselves for two weeks.

The Harvard Global Health Institute estimates that the U.S. will need to triple its testing average, to 900,000 per week, to contain the outbreak, though states’ needs vary.

An early test kit developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed in February, while South Korea was commended for its early and aggressive testing. The U.S. has caught up and now exceeds the per capita rate in the Asian nation, which the White House is using as a comparison.

Experts say testing is still uneven across the country because of supply issues despite the administration’s push to meet state demands.

President Trump has seesawed between boasting about American leadership in testing and musing that testing might be “overrated” or might inflate the U.S. case count compared with other countries.

“When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases. They don’t want to write that. It’s common sense. So we test much more many, many times,” he said last week in Pennsylvania.

Either way, his administration is scrambling to expand technologies that allow states to diagnose COVID-19 and figure out who might have some level of protection from the coronavirus.

The Food and Drug Administration said it has authorized roughly 100 diagnostic or antibody tests for emergency use, up from 36 as of April 15.

The agency approved a kit Saturday that allows people to take a nasal swab at home and send the sample to a lab. A doctor must sign off on an online questionnaire before users receive the kit.

The test from Everlywell received a form of preliminary approval known as emergency use authorization.

Also this month, the FDA approved the first home-use saliva test. Its creators say the kit, which requires users to spit into a collection tube and send it to a lab, is more pleasant than “sticking a swab up your nose or down your throat.”

Rutgers rolled out a saliva test in mid-April, though it required the saliva to be collected at testing sites.

“I think send-home kits are terrific,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I think this is a very good approach and it’s a way to reduce transmission.”

He said it would be great if at-home kit makers partner with app companies that are tracking outbreaks. That way, he said, public health departments could send kits to at-risk people in communities with a lot of cases.

“I think that these are very, very important to start producing. I think the era of requiring everyone to go to the doctor to get a test should be considered behind us,” he said.

The White House has directed states to lead diagnostic efforts, though $1 billion from Congress’ recent relief package has been distributed to support testing.

Michigan is averaging 12,000 tests per day, a 140% percent increase over about 5,000 per day about a month ago.

People who do not show signs of COVID-19 can be tested, but those who have symptoms and those who are essential workers have higher priority.

Colorado conducted nearly 3,000 tests per day, on average, at its clinical labs from May 8 to 12 compared with an average of nearly 2,000 tests from April 8 to. 12.

Among private companies, Quest Diagnostics started offering its antibody test on April 28.

As of May 11, it was performing about 200,000 antibody tests a day.

The process is straightforward. After clicking the big green “add to cart” button online, users must take a quick survey to ensure they aren’t walking into the lab with an infection.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from people who want the convenience of getting an antibody test without going into a physician’s office but still want physician oversight and a high-quality test,” Quest spokeswoman Kimberly B. Gorode said. “A lot of the volume we’re seeing is from people who were sick earlier in the year but did not get a diagnostic test, or by people who believe they may have been exposed to the virus.”

Potomac Pediatrics sent up a tent outside its office to conduct blood draws. Employees wear protective equipment and send the samples to LabCorp, which advertised the service to families. The Rockville office then started offering the service.

Families must have a teleconsultation ahead of time to understand the limits of the test and advise people who have symptoms of COVID-19 not to take it.

The results come back in one to three days and say whether the sample is positive for antibodies or negative.

Potomac Pediatrics had tested 200 people as of Friday, and all came back negative.

Still, “nobody is regretting doing this,” Ms. Vallejo said. “The patients are so happy and grateful and thankful they’re being offered this opportunity.”

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