Upper Valley practices begin COVID-19 antibody testing

  • Sierra Walker, of Claremont, N.H., left, prepares to draw blood from Samantha Lacaillade, of Croydon, N.H., in the parking lot at Keady Family Practice in Claremont, N.H., on April 28, 2020. Along with patients at the practice, Lacaillade is amongst the Keady employees who have volunteered for COVID-19 antibody testing. Keady will also do the test for first responders and medical personnel. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2020 9:41:29 PM
Modified: 4/28/2020 9:41:26 PM

LEBANON — Two Upper Valley medical practices last week began offering antibody testing to look for an immune response to COVID-19.

The tests, now available at ClearChoiceMD urgent care centers in northern New England, including its site on Miracle Mile in Lebanon, and at Keady Family Practice in Claremont, aim to detect whether people have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and may have developed some immunity to it.

“All the scientists nationwide are thirsty for this kind of data,” said Dr. Marcus Hampers, CEO of the New London-based ClearChoiceMD.

Having information about who may have developed immunity to COVID-19 is going to help manage the crisis now and in the future, he said. Hampers said he’s been fielding phone calls from employers who “want to know it’s safe for their employees to go back to work.”

But Hampers said the tests, which are conducted using blood samples and are sometimes referred to as serology tests, only measure whether people have developed an immune response to the virus, not the degree of that response. It’s also unknown how long any immunity might last. The sensitivity of the test provided by the New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics, which both Upper Valley practices are using, is about 90%, meaning there is a false negative rate of 10%, he said.

“None of these tests have been perfect,” Hampers said.

The World Health Organization and Vermont health officials say positive results from such tests should not be considered “immunity passports” or used as a way to get back to work without fear of reinfection.

“For the present time, (antibody testing is) not being recommended by the state or even by worldwide authorities in its current state,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said during a news conference on Monday. “I suspect that will change very quickly.”

The WHO said in a scientific brief last Friday that “there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”

Antibody tests do not measure the degree of immunity a person has developed against COVID-19. The WHO also warned about the possibility of false negatives and false positives that could “have serious consequences and will affect control efforts.”

The WHO said it would update its brief as more information becomes available.

In the past week, Hampers said he has had interest in the tests from those who were sick but did not get tested for COVID-19 at the time, as well as health care workers and anxious people.

So far, the test has only detected a “handful” of cases across all of ClearChoiceMD’s sites in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine; fewer than the approximately 30 positive tests the company has had for active cases of COVID-19, he said. It takes as many as 48 hours to get a result for the antibody test, but Hampers said most have been coming back in 12 hours.

“That could change if (Quest’s) volumes keep increasing,” he said.

As for the cost, most insurance plans cover the testing. For those without insurance or whose insurance doesn’t cover it, the test costs $55, Hampers said. The nasal swab test for active COVID-19 costs $100 out of pocket, he said.

Keady Family Practice, which is making the tests available first to health care workers and emergency medical technicians, had detected just one positive out of the 47 people that providers had tested as of last Friday. The positive was in a health care worker, who family nurse practitioner Cecilia Vicuna-Keady said was glad to have learned he had developed some immunity and could potentially donate plasma to help others.

The worker had stayed home with flu-like symptoms, which he had subsequently recovered from, but he hadn’t gotten tested for COVID-19, said Vicuna-Keady, who co-owns the practice.

“He didn’t want to use something that somebody else could use,” she said of the limited testing supplies.

Susan McGrew, of Norwich, had a sore throat, cough and pneumonia around Christmastime. Though she was not tested for COVID-19, as that was before it had been detected in the United States, she suspects she may have been stricken by the coronavirus, as does her son Jake, who fell ill in January.

“I certainly felt horrible,” she said.

McGrew, who is 81, said she would like some clarity on whether she did have COVID-19, perhaps through an antibody test in the future. But not yet.

She has been following the state’s press conferences and said health officials “don’t seem to think that there’s enough reliability,” she said.

While she would have liked to donate plasma, she was told she was too old to do so when she called Dartmouth-Hitchcock, she said.

“I would have been happy to do it,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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