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LOCAL NEWS: Rapid COVID testing has its limits

LOCAL NEWS: Rapid COVID testing has its limits

One issue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been sufficient testing capacity. Even now, seven months in, Clatsop County press releases about new cases contain a caveat that says “in most cases testing is being limited to those with COVID-19 symptoms or individuals who are contacts of positive cases.” Test results for patients are often slow to arrive. Now, rapid tests are becoming more widely available. But they’re not a silver bullet. Joanne Rideout has more. 

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Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen says rapid COVID-19 tests have been available in Oregon for quite a while, though not in high volume. They’re called Abbot IDNow tests, made by drug manufacturer Abbot. Rapid tests have been deployed to several dozen locations around the state since fairly early in the pandemic. However, they can only process a few dozen tests per day.

But there are issues with these tests. An op-ed article in the medical trade journal MedPage Today, says that manufacturers of rapid testing kits have acquired FDA “emergency use authorization” for them, by demonstrating acceptable performance of these saliva tests in patients with high viral loads. That means people with lots of the virus in their systems. These are among the tests being used at the White House; results are available in 15 minutes.

But despite progress in testing, great caution is called for in testing people without symptoms, Allen said in an email. Patients who are ill but have low levels of COVID may register a false negative even though they do have the virus. The false negative rate is high in rapid tests, running a serious risk of causing people who have COVID-19 to believe they don’t. More accurate tests simply take more time to produce results. So the benefit of rapid testing is in question.

Allen said the state would be changing testing criteria to provide for testing asymptomatic contacts of confirmed cases. Currently, OHA only recommends testing symptomatic contacts.

Regarding experimental treatments, such as those received by President Trump at Walter Reed hospital, they are generally as available to Oregonians as residents of other states. Remdesivir is an example. The drug has been undergoing clinical trials but is not yet approved by the FDA for public use. But on May 1st, the FDA also issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the drug, made by drug manufacturer Gilead Sciences. It’s meant for the treatment of hospitalized patients with severe coronavirus disease. Treatment with the drug can cost thousands of dollars.

I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.