Chesco Health Dept. Explains Actions When Antibody Tests Failed

CHESTER COUNTY, PA — In May, Chester County offered coronavirus antibody tests to all essential workers, then other groups, but later found the test were inaccurate, with a suspiciously high number of positives.

Chester County issued a statement last week explaining what happened and why the county did not promptly issue a blanket communication that would have alerted those with positive antibody results of the likelihood of error.

The health department’s statement said that the health team spent two weeks in May trying to identify the cause of the inaccurate results, and after that time, all the people who’d had those false positives had seen doctors and were likely out of quarantine.

Those people were likely widely dispersed in the county. The county health department had announced at the end of May that testing for antibodies would soon be available. Drive-thru sites were set up at Longwood Gardens and at the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in Coatesville.

Chester County was the first county in Pennsylvania and among the first in Pennsylvania to offer the service, but only weeks later, the county posted a notice that “As of 6/2/20, Chester County is not currently offering COVID-19 antibody tests. Please check back soon for more information about testing opportunities.”

Little else was publicized at the time about the anti-body testing program developed with Lehigh Valley Genomics of Bethlehem. Chester Springs biotech company Advaite makes the blood sample tests, which intend to detect antibodies a person has produced to fight off the coronavirus.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Chester County spent more than $13 million in federal pandemic aid for the tests.

“Only 13,231 people were actually tested by the county, officials say. An additional 8,678 were tested by nursing homes and other facilities. About 57,000 unused tests are now in storage, according to Michael Murphy, the emergency services department director who oversaw the testing program,” the Inquirer reported.

On Sept. 16, the Chester County Health Department posted a long statement on its website, under Civic Alerts, titled “Chester County Statement Regarding COVID-19 Antibody Testing.”

“Even before COVID-19 made its way to our region, Chester County’s Health Department enacted a public health plan that ensured our businesses, schools and universities, hospitals, long-term care facilities, non-profits, churches and citizens were informed of the virus, its potential impact, and the ways to try and control it,” the statement read.

“COVID-19 did not come with its own ‘play book.’ It has been a fluid and ever evolving situation. But from the start, Chester County has been determined to assess and evaluate as many options as possible to control the spread of the virus.”

So, in addition to providing information, investigation and contact tracing services, our public health and emergency response teams researched and evaluated multiple COVID-19 testing options. The County’s search for various testing options led to recommendations by many individuals suggesting a variety of potential solutions. But ultimately, it was the County’s public health team that evaluated the potential solutions and provided advice on what was feasible and what was not.”

The county’s statement went on the explain how the test was seen as a tool for date collection, and might be useful because of the well known lag time for COVID-19 test results.

“Knowing that there was a significant delay on nasal swab test kits, the public health team determined that antibody tests would be a potentially good interim measure. The antibody testing would be one tool in the County’s COVID-19 data collection toolbox, used before enough nasal swab testing supplies could be produced and obtained.”

After evaluating multiple antibody tests, Chester County’s public health team recommended use of the Advaite test. The county said that “over a specific time period” a review of results showed more positives than expected.

The county said it immediately took seriously the concerns raised by the public health team about the irregularly high number of positive test results. The issue, the county’s statement said, was promptly “relayed to the Director of the Chester County Health Department.”

“An immediate investigation by the Health Department included contact with Advaite to request an evaluation of the efficacy of the antibody tests administered during the specific time period. The Health Department also conducted an internal audit of its antibody testing processes, and during this time, did not post questionable antibody testing results on its website, to prevent dissemination of potentially false information,” the statement said.

Chester County’s official statement explained “further analysis was needed” so the county did not sent out a widely communicated message about the possibly inaccurate antibody test results.

“It was determined that a blanket communication should not be sent to those who potentially received inaccurate antibody test results.”

Two weeks later, the Chester County Health Department was still not able to conclusively identify the cause of the potentially inaccurate test results. The county said, at that point all patients would have completed the recommended consult with their physician as well as quarantine.

“In hindsight, communication noting the potential inaccuracies of the antibody tests should have been provided to test recipients on the affected days,” the statement says.

The Chester County Health Department said it “has since sent communication to all potentially affected test recipients, offering the option of a second, different, antibody test.”

“The Chester County Commissioners takes seriously the responsibility of Chester County government to follow policies and procedures that ensure the best possible services and programs are made available to citizens at all times, including during a global pandemic. The Commissioners will be appointing an independent legal consultant to review the process associated with sourcing and procuring the antibody tests so that recommendations may be provided on how policies and procedures can be improved.”

The statement ends saying “Commissioners are also working to determine how to proceed regarding previous payments to Advaite for the antibody test kits.”

Related past stories can be read here and here.

This article originally appeared on the West Chester Patch

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