STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the accuracy of COVID-19 antibody tests improve and become more readily available, questions linger about the information those tests can provide.
Of the 1,000 tests the Steamboat Emergency Center obtained, they’ve only administered several hundred at this point, according to Dr. Jesse Sandhu. As a result of the low testing number, he said it’s too soon to get a sense of how many Routt County residents have been exposed to the virus.
However, Sandhu said they’ve been surprised thus far at how many people are testing positive for the antibodies.
Steamboat Emergency Center is also using multiple levels of verification, including a PCR diagnostic test as well as sending some of the antibody tests to a lab for the more sensitive ELISA test.
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“The point is the antibodies are there,” Sandhu said. “We are getting a surprisingly decent amount of positives.”
Most of the people going in for the antibody tests believe they were exposed to COVID-19 around February or March, Sandhu said, before testing was available to anyone other than the most critically ill.
At a local level, Sandhu said one of the most valuable pieces of information that can come from the center’s data subset will be in tracking people with antibodies to see if they get reinfected with the virus.
Only then can doctors and scientists better understand what level — if any — of immunity people have who have previously been exposed to COVID-19.
As of last week, UCHealth is also offering antibody test and diagnostic testing to anyone who wants it in Colorado.
“Many people have been interested in getting antibody tested, because they want to know if they have been exposed to COVID-19, or they want to know if they are possibly immune to COVID-19,” said UCHealth Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Richard Zane in a news release. “Unfortunately, for now, the only thing we can tell you is that, if you have antibodies, you have been exposed to COVID-19. We cannot tell you, yet, whether you are immune to it.”
While there has been a lot of concern about the accuracy of antibody tests, the tests being used by the Steamboat Emergency Center and UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center are authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.
There are only a few FDA-authorized tests currently on the market.
“The antibody tests that UCHealth now provides have been evaluated by the FDA and far exceed the agency’s requirements for accuracy and specificity,” according to a UCHealth news release. “These are among the few antibody tests authorized by the FDA, and they are among the most accurate being offered in the nation. The test UCHealth is offering is greater than 98% specific, meaning that there are fewer than one in 1,000 errors.”
The test being used at the Steamboat Emergency Center has a specificity of 96%.
“There are many commercial tests available and being utilized at other medical facilities,” Sandhu said. “Many of these test are not accurate and do not have FDA authorization. Always ask the brand of the test being used and cross reference it on the FDA site to make sure it is truly authorized.”
While most insurance plans do cover both the antibody and diagnostic tests, health care providers are recommending patients check with their individual plans.
In terms of out-of-pocket costs, Steamboat Emergency Center is offering the antibody test for $199. Yampa Valley Medical Center offers theirs for $100.
“We have very high confidence in the antibody test UCHealth is now able to offer,” said Dr. Laura Sehnert, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “However, we still have a lot to learn about what it truly means to have COVID-19 antibodies — how long they’ll last, if they’ll prevent re-infection, etc.
“The presence of COVID-19 antibodies does not mean you can forget everything we’ve done over the last few months,” Sehnert explained. “Our community has done a great job social distancing, wearing masks and performing hand hygiene. As Steamboat Springs begins to welcome back second homeowners and visitors, it remains of the utmost importance for all of us to continue to practicing these behaviors.”
Sandhu notes that while people are hoping the summer season slows the virus down, that is far from a certainty at this point. He also observed that people may concentrate travel plans to places like Routt County, knowing there is low disease prevalence, and it is easier to social distance.
But he is excited about getting more antibody data going forward, especially as the early results provide evidence that more people had it then realized. Some of the people who tested positive for antibodies are reaching out to others they had close contact with around the time they were sick, Sandhu said, and encouraging them to also get an antibody test.
In terms of diagnostic testing, the Routt County Department of Public Health will continue to offer drive-thru testing through June and July. And as supplies increase, they continue to opening up testing to more people, including asymptomatic volunteers.
Kari Ladrow, public health director for Routt County, also emphasized the importance of contact tracing going forward.
“Contact tracing is one of the cornerstones of preventative medicine and public health and is particularly crucial in the current pandemic by identifying individuals who have been exposed quickly and isolating, quarantining and testing them,” Ladrow said in a news release. “Community participation in the process of contact tracing is critical for virus suppression and continued economic and community recovery.”
“The disease mitigation efforts our county has undertaken appear to have been very effective,” Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Brian Harrington said in a May 27 news release. “The opening of restaurants and short-term lodging represent factors that could increase the presence and transmission of COVID 19 in our community. I emphasize that COVID-19 remains in our community.
“Just this weekend, we had a resident of Craig test positive,” Harrington continued. “That resident had been in our county while infected with the COVID-19 infection. It is important that people in Routt County continue to practice social distancing, wear face masks in public and stay at home if sick with COVID-19 symptoms until they have contacted their primary care provider or gotten a negative COVID-19 test.”