San Miguel County, Colorado, is one of few places in the world where testing has been offered to an entire community. As the Mountain West News Bureau has reported, a biomedical company is offering blood tests for free to all residents there over 8 years old.
The county says around 5,500 people, which is about 70% of residents, volunteered to get their blood analyzed for antibodies against the new coronavirus.
Unlike the usual back-of-the-nose swab, the blood test looks for evidence that someone’s immune system has encountered the virus and created antibodies in response, so it identifies those who’ve recovered, too.
“It’s been really useful information,” said Grace Franklin, the county’s public health director.
Some residents expressed frustration on social media that it’s been almost two weeks and they still don’t have their results back. But as of Friday morning, 1,600 people do have results. Out of that group, only eight people tested positive, meaning they’re either currently infected or were previously infected. Franklin said a couple of those positives never had any symptoms.
“That says a lot about how to respond and really emphasizes the importance of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders,” said Franklin.
A couple dozen people came back with borderline results, meaning they’re either negative, or they could be in the early stages of infection. The rest were negative, a result that can either mean someone hasn’t been exposed to the virus, or that they were exposed so recently that their immune system hasn’t yet ramped up enough antibodies to be detected.
That grey area is why the original plan was to do a second round of testing two weeks after the first one -- to catch whether some of those borderline and negative cases might turn into positive cases after a couple weeks of their immune systems revving up.
But in early April, the county put out a couple press releases saying the second round of testing would be “postponed indefinitely” and that the New York lab where samples were being processed was “compromised” because of the outbreak there. The county later walked back the statement, saying their previous wording was “unintentionally misleading” and that the county and company “remain united and committed to initiating the second round of testing.”
“We’re working hard around the clock trying to get these back and we appreciate people’s patience,” Mei Mei Hu, CEO of United Biomedical, told KOTO Community Radio. “Hopefully by early next week we’ll get the next batch back to the county and we’ll keep moving until they’re done.”
“We’d love a big Easter basket full of results,” said Dr. Sharon Grundy, the county’s medical officer.
As recent events in the U.K. have shown, faster is not always better. The government there ordered millions of do-it-yourself blood tests with the promise that people could prick their fingers and have answers in 15 minutes. But, as The Guardian reported, scientists warn the tests “may fail to detect up to half of coronavirus cases.”
On Friday, health officials in Los Angeles began testing the blood of 1,000 residents, chosen at random.
People in the health policy world say this kind of testing -- blood tests, rather than nose swabs -- could be an important tool in identifying how much of the population is now immune to the coronavirus currently circulating. In addition, it could show just how widely COVID-19 has spread, and how fatal it truly is.
San Miguel County doesn’t have any ICU beds and, as county officials pointed out in a conversation with KOTO Community Radio, the community’s relying on regional hospitals to treat serious cases. During a meeting Friday, county commissioners expressed concern at the number of visitors continuing to come through the area despite a stay-at-home order. And while the number of positive cases is low, they’re preparing for a possible surge in patients, including how to get them to lower altitude where oxygen is less of an issue.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico and support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.