RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia is trying to ramp up rapid testing for COVID-19 but health officials say it could be a while before the use is widespread.
Results for rapid antigen tests are generally returned faster than PCR tests–taking minutes compared to days. Though antigen tests have a higher risk of false negatives, health officials say they remain a critical tool for containing the virus.
Public Health and Preparedness Chief Deputy Commissioner Dr. Parham Jaberi is heading Virginia’s testing strategy.
Dr. Jaberi said rapid tests haven’t generally been available at community testing sites in the commonwealth because the Food and Drug Administration initially only recommended them for symptomatic patients. Earlier this month, the CDC published an updated guidance saying antigen tests can be an effective tool for screening asymptomatic cases.
“My best estimate is still weeks to months before the average Virginian can have access to antigen testing as readily as some of the other forms,” Jaberi said.
Those comments come more than a month after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam joined a first-of-its-kind multi-state testing compact to encourage increased production of these tests.
“The original purpose is, one, to make sure Virginia and the other states band together and get the best prices,” said Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey. “Also because manufacturing hasn’t risen to meet the demand, we’re trying to give that clear signal to the marketplace.”
At an August 5 press conference, Northam said the compact was a necessary solution in the absence of a national testing strategy.
“There has been a total disconnect,” Northam said. “We have been asked as governors to fight a biological war without supplies.”
Since then, that group of governors has grown but Virginia has yet to reap the benefits of the agreement. Gov. Larry Hogan announced earlier this month that Maryland would be the first of 10 states to receive a shipment of 250,000 rapid antigen tests.
“They may be ahead of the curve compared to other states because they were the first state to engage in these relationships,” Jaberi said when asked why Virginia is lagging.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Carey said the administration is nearing the end of its analysis. He didn’t specify when an order would be finalized but, even when that happens, Carey said the distribution will be targeted at first.
“Our priorities remain the care of the most vulnerable,” Carey said.
Jaberi said they’re looking at places most prone to outbreaks like nursing homes, schools, prisons and other congregate settings.
A bill being considered in the special session directs the health commissioner to prioritize access to rapid testing to essential workers, including healthcare providers, first responders, law enforcement officers, nursing homes, K-12 schools, universities and childcare centers. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and will take effect immediately if the governor signs it.
Jeff Stover, Executive Program Advisor to the Commissioner at the Virginia Department of Heath, said the federal government sent limited shipments of antigen tests to 235 nursing homes in the state this week.
Jaberi said this will help providers meet new testing requirements recently imposed by CMS. He said nursing homes now have to retest up to twice weekly, depending on the percent of positive cases.
“There was no way that we could support that type of testing just through the slower PCR tests so there was a clear need to get these rapid tests to certain facilities sooner than others,” Jaberi said.
As manufacturers of rapid tests continue to struggle with supply shortages, Jaberi said President Donald Trump could help by using the Defense Production Act. The act allows the federal government to direct private companies to boost production of materials necessary for national defense.
“I definitely think the federal government can always help if they chose to do so,” Jaberi said. “They (HHS) are more actively engaged and more aware. Is there more they could do? I would probably say yes.”
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