Amid testing focus, Virginia tweaks how it reports on coronavirus

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, public health experts and local leaders have specified increased testing as a benchmark in considering when it is safe to reopen, after the coronavirus restrictions end.

There are actually two kinds of testing being done — diagnostic and antibody — and, until now Virginia has lumped the two in its daily reporting. However, amid criticism that combining the results provides an inflated view of the state’s efforts to control the virus, the state’s Department of Health says the tests will be reported separately.

With diagnostic testing, a swab is taken of a person’s nose. The test amplifies viral genetic material of the coronavirus, if it is present, through the process of polymerase chain reaction or PCR.

With antibody testing, analyzing a person’s blood can show whether he has ever been exposed to the virus, and may be immune it, regardless of whether that person developed symptoms associated with COVID-19.

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While antibody tests continue to be developed, which will result in the ability to test more people, public health officials have warned the results can be less reliable, and can skew data to suggest an entity is doing a better job of controlling spread of the coronavirus than it actually is.

Virginia’s Department of Health said Thursday in the future it will present the results of the two tests separately, in its daily reports on coronavirus.

The agency said antibody testing currently makes up 9% of all testing, and retroactively breaking-out the two tests doesn’t significantly affect the data Gov. Ralph Northam had, before deciding to ease restrictions for most of the state Friday.

It was just six week ago, on April 2, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency-use approval to the first coronavirus antibody test. Others have moved quickly to market.

Without a vaccine, public health officials have said coronavirus testing is the most important way to gauge potential spread, by understanding how many people have previously been exposed, which is typically part of the equation in considering reopening a jurisdiction.

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