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State aims to learn more about COVID-19 with new form of testing

By Lucia Starbuck

By Lucia Starbuck | Feature Image: Eric Marks

In the coming weeks the Nevada State Public Health Lab hopes to learn more about COVID-19 by offering a unique form of testing. Antibody testing will provide different information than the COVID-19 tests that are being used in Washoe County right now, which can detect if a person is currently positive or negative.

The concept of the test is simple. If a person has become infected or exposed, even if they’re asymptomatic, their body starts making antibodies in response. However, it takes time after being infected for an individual’s body to make these antibodies. 

If a person tests negative, they can still be infected but their body hasn’t started making the antibodies. If this new test returns positive and detects antibodies in an individual, it means at some point that person was exposed to the virus. This antibody test can’t tell if one is currently infected.

Dr. Mark Pandori, the director of Nevada State Public Health Laboratory was pragmatic when discussing how the antibody tests would impact how health professionals manage the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I would think it’s fair to call it a game changer because it’s going to provide public health with a very powerful tool to, at some point, determine how much infection was really out there,” Pandori explained.

“In terms of medical response to this, I wouldn’t call it a game changer because it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s current about a person’s health condition. It really only says what might’ve happened, what did happen to them.”

Who gets a test?

The antibody tests will be disbursed to doctors, clinicians and health districts, and left to their discretion on how they’re used. Pandori said the state lab is hoping to allocate 100 of these tests per week. The tests are expected to start shipping to Nevada next week.

Pandori said the state lab doesn’t determine who will get the antibody tests. He did recommend that essential workers like grocery staff be tested for antibodies in the future.

“It might be very useful to know whether or not they’ve been infected or have had an immunological reaction because sending them back to work might be critical as we continue to face the challenges both medical and public health for this virus,” Pandori said.

The Nevada State Public Health Lab is also producing collection kits with the goal of providing them to clinics, hospitals or health agencies who want to conduct tests.

Under Nevada law, an individual can’t order a test through the Nevada State Public Health Lab and instead must go through a clinician or county health district.

Collecting COVID-19 Data in Washoe County

Kevin Dick
Kevin Dick. Image: Trevor Bexon

The Southern Nevada Health District released a map of the number of positive COVID-19 cases per zip code in Clark County. Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said the Washoe County Health District does not have plans to create such a map for Washoe County. 

“Those locations only provide the location where the person has a residence, is isolating while they’re recovering from the disease. It doesn’t represent where we have spread occurring in the community: they may live in Reno, they may have been at a facility in Sparks where they were exposed etc.. So we believe they may create a false sense of security for people in some areas,” Dick said.

Additionally, for the Washoe County risk assessment form required to take a COVID-19 test, Dick said the health district is not requiring individuals to indicate their race and ethnicity.

“We’re quite aware of a fear that certain portions of our population have in regard to accessing government services and how that has been enhanced by the public charge rule. That could be an obstacle for somebody to be able to have citizenship in the future if they’ve accessed public services. So we know that’s had an impact on how people access the health district services,” Dick said.

Dick did note that not requiring individuals to indicate their race and ethnicity will result in a gap in demographic data regarding COVID-19 cases. For the Washoe County drive-thru testing, insurance is not required and it’s free.

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