Council discusses future COVID-19 testing

Council discusses future COVID-19 testing
Alexandria City Hall. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, discussed the future of COVID-19 testing in Alexandria at a city council legislative meeting on Tuesday evening.

Testing capacity has increased both locally and across the country, yet several plans to reopen states, including Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) Forward Virginia strategy, are contingent upon widespread testing. Northam’s plan involves increasing statewide testing capacity to 10,000 people per day prior to reopening.

Mayor Justin Wilson asked what that goal for increased testing means for Alexandria.

“Every plan for reopening has a predicate that there’s increased testing capacity, and I think most folks are translating that to mean that we need widespread asymptomatic testing in order to reopen the economy,” Wilson said. “… How do we step into a more widely available testing for those individuals who might not be symptomatic?”

Testing in Alexandria is currently available only for individuals who are exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Increased testing does not necessarily equate to asymptomatic testing, Haering said. Northam’s plan will likely involve more testing for people with symptoms, he said.

However, Haering said that when he asked state officials about community COVID-19 testing, he was informed about a new potential type of testing – community blood testing.

“One of the things I asked the state epidemiologist [was] why don’t we do community testing, which would be we would go to a neighborhood and test anybody that shows up regardless,” Haering said. “The response there was we wouldn’t do the type of testing that we’re doing now, which is a nasopharyngeal swab, where we take a small Q-tip and put it way back in somebody’s nose back to their throat. Instead, it would be a blood test for antibodies.”

“That blood test would either be through the arm or through a finger prick, and that would not tell a person that you’re sick right now,” Hearing continued. “What it would tell a person is that you’ve had the sickness in the past.”

Community blood testing would essentially be more helpful for health experts than individuals, Haering said, as it would help experts understand exactly how common the virus is.

Councilor Del Pepper questioned why, if the city chooses to do community testing that’s open to the public, a blood test would be preferable to the nasal swab.

“The blood testing … why would people do that if it’s not going to tell you that you’ve got the problem now?” Pepper asked.

Because the testing would involve a questionnaire asking if the subject has experienced COVID-19 symptoms in recent months, the antibody results would help identify asymptomatic carriers, Haering said.

“It actually helps to demonstrate to us as a community, as a nation, how much of this is being spread asymptomatically, so it helps to characterize the illness,” Haering said.

The theoretical community blood testing is still just a concept that’s under discussion, just as there are currently no sites in Alexandria offering walk-in COVID-19 testing to the public.

“I’m certainly interested in us doing [community blood testing], as long as everybody understands what the role of that testing would be, that would help all of us to understand, how common is it?” Haering said.

(Read more: Drive-through COVID-19 testing comes to Old Town)