Chesco to start antibody testing of first responders, healthcare professionals

WEST CHESTER After nearly a month of intensive efforts by Chester County Government to overcome restrictions imposed for antibody testing, the County confirms it is now able to begin point-of-contact testing for essential function individuals who are on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis in Chester County – although questions about both the reliability of such tests and whether infection provides immunity cast a shadow over the program.

The antibody testing, in the form of a simple pin-prick test kit manufactured by Chester County-based Advaite, will now begin for Chester County’s first responders and healthcare workers, and all members of their households.

These moves put the county back on track to – hopefully — see which front line medical workers and first responders have had the COVID-19 virus. However, the Advaite test the county plans to use has not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) —  and concerns, not specifically with this test — show some of the dozens of unapproved antibody tests currently have false positive rates as high as 15%. Such results could put essential workers at greater risk, thinking they are safe from infection when they are not. Additionally, the World Health Organization has not yet been able to confirm that having COVID-19 provides immunity — the science remains extremely unsettled on the matter.

While the plan was announced last month, the state Department of Health (DOH) initially declined to give the county permission to use the tests.

“We have been investigating every option open to us to try and get ahead of the coronavirus, and we know that determining who has developed antibodies will be extremely useful in helping us make informed decisions on the way to physical, emotional and economic recovery,” Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz said. “That’s why we researched the best options available, followed federal and state guidelines, and subsequently purchased tens of thousands of antibody test kits from a manufacturer based right here in Chester County.

“But permission to actually conduct the testing met with road blocks from the PA Department of Health because of regulatory issues.  So instead of channeling our efforts into getting the tests up and running, we have had to focus our energy on overcoming the red tape.”

Chester County has contracted with Bethlehem-based Lehigh Valley Genomics, a laboratory that holds the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certificate to perform high complexity testing, which is required by DOH.  Although the pin-prick antibody test can be easily administered by qualified healthcare personnel, with results available in 15 minutes, DOH currently requires the monitoring of the test by a CLIA laboratory.

“Lehigh Valley Genomics is committed and prepared to help administer COVID-19 antibody testing to the residents of Chester County,” Lisa Jackson, Managing Partner of Lehigh Valley Genomics said. “As a high-complexity genetic and molecular laboratory, we are proud to be a part of a solution to bring mass testing to the people that need it most. Together, we can get the county back up and running.”

Officials hope the testing will give those most at risk the ability to make more informed choices.

“This test will help keep our frontline heroes safe, while collecting information on the spread of COVID-19 in Chester County that will help inform decisions made by policy makers and healthcare providers locally and nationally,” Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell said. “Most importantly, now we can start the process of antibody testing for the good of Chester County residents.”

“The efforts to gain permission for antibody testing have been longer than we would have liked, but the Chester County community was up to the task.  We are very grateful to State Sen. Andy Dinniman, State Representative John Lawrence and all of our other state elected officials for their immense help in earning the support for antibody test barriers from the Pennsylvania Department of Health,” added Maxwell.

For their part, Dinniman, a former long-time Commissioner, and Lawrence (R-13) were strongly supportive of the county’s efforts.

“I am delighted that Chester County can put its testing program into place,” Dinniman said. “The commissioners should be praised for leading the state of Pennsylvania in deploying antibody, point-of-contact testing.”

“I commend Commissioners Moskowitz, Maxwell, and Kichline for their commitment to testing our first responders and medical personnel,”  Lawrence said.  “By working together, Chester County is once again setting an example for other counties to follow.  I look forward to continuing to work with County officials to expedite COVID-19 testing for our first responders in the days ahead.”

Chester County is the first in the Commonwealth to undertake antibody testing.

“The antibody test kits are supplemental to the nasal swab coronavirus testing that is happening and will continue to happen in partnership with our healthcare systems,” said Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline.  “This is not a replacement test for confirming cases, but is another crucial tool that will help us respond to emergencies, treat patients, and care for our older loved ones.

“If this provides us with results we are expecting, we hope to be able to expand antibody testing to additional priority level tiers, to help us manage this crisis. It also will give us more information as we plan and prepare for the safe re-opening of Chester County.”

The full-scale antibody testing will begin on Friday and will be based at two locations – the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in South Coatesville, and at Longwood Gardens.  Testing is by appointment only through an online registration system, and is open to all first responders, healthcare workers and their household members.  Details of the online registration system is being shared via contacts in the first responder, hospital and health care, and long-term care facility communities.

Chester County’s Health Department and Department of Emergency Services undertake emergency health preparedness planning exercises on a regular basis, which includes the mass dispensing of medication or testing of large populations of people.  The County relies on partnerships with public and private entities throughout the County, and turned to Longwood Gardens in this instance because of its location and its infrastructure.

“Longwood Gardens is committed to supporting our community as we move through this pandemic together,” said Longwood Gardens President and CEO Paul B. Redman.  “Longwood has always been a safe refuge of beauty and it is without any hesitation that we answer the call to serve our community by supporting this important testing effort in partnership with Chester County.”

Upon recommendation by Chester County health officials, the County Commissioners are also considering options for coronavirus nasal swab testing for congregate care facilities, first responders and healthcare workers, and to supply healthcare systems that may need additional tests.

“The more we know, the more we can plan to open Chester County in a way that balances safety with our business and economic needs,” speaking about Chester County’s investment in COVID-19 testing options, Commissioner Moskowitz said. “All investment in testing up-front, will, we believe, pay dividends for our future.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has the final authority on reopening — with case numbers and testing capacity key factors in the decision process. Wolf is expected to announce a second group of counties, following today’s partial opening of 24 counties in the north and west of the state, later Friday.

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