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State Coronavirus Dashboard Will Separate Swab, Blood Tests 

Graph comparing tests without antibody to antibody
After pressure from journalists, Virginia will separate antibody and swab test results in their daily update. (Screenshot: Virginia Department of Health)

After criticism about mixing test data, Virginia’s Department of Health has released a new data breakdown separating out the number of nasal and throat swab tests being done to detect live virus, from blood tests – known as antibody tests – to detect the past presence of the virus. The breakdown shows the blood tests, or antibody tests, account for less than nine percent of all testing that’s been reported since February. 

Over the weekend, Mel Leonor with the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that Virginia has been combining swab and blood tests in their daily reports about total testing across the commonwealth. Leonor told VPM she got the tip from a press briefing on testing last week.

“The state lab director, Dr. Denise Toney, at one point said she thought -- she was pretty sure -- that serology test results were being received by the state but that they were not being published along with the other testing data that included the diagnostic tests that hospitals use,” Leonor told VPM. “And, honestly, just her lack of certainty about the issue prompted me to just ask the department for an answer.”

On Friday night, Leonor got confirmation from the state health department that they actually were combining the two test figures in daily reports. She wanted to see if the percent positivity rate, the percent of all tests that turn positive for COVID-19, had been affected. 

“When you have too many tests compared to fewer positive cases, then that number is thrown off,” Leonor said. “And those are the figures that they [state officials] are using to make decisions about when we reopen and how we do it. And so I think just making sure that the public has accurate data, but also that officials themselves are keeping it in a way that is in line with public health standards is really important, and I think is kind of the key to making sure that we move forward in a way that's safe for everyone.”

The state department of health, in its release Thursday morning, says there is “minimal change in the percent positive of tests and no difference in overall trends,” despite an increase in the number of antibody tests the state says were utilized -- and reported -- in the past three weeks. Over the past two weeks, antibody tests accounted for 14 percent of all tests reported by the state. The week before that, antibody tests accounted for 12 percent. 

The release also states that “the Virginia Department of Health defines a case as confirmed when there is a positive PCR test.” Dr. Karen Remley, who leads Virginia’s COVID-19 testing work group, told VPM Tuesday she learned about the reporting of test types together like everyone else, but said “classic epidemiology” explained why the state was tracking multiple types of tests.

“The serology tests are included in the test numbers because the tests -- it's classic epidemiology -- look at the number of cases,” Remley said. “And so how you get to that case can be by an antigen test, or an antibody test can help inform that.” She did say that the figures should be reported separately, however.

Remley told VPM Tuesday that the daily capacity for testing -- including the state lab and three university labs, VCU, UVA and Virginia Tech -- was at about 1,500. A spokesperson for the state department of health told VPM that figure does not include antibody tests, and that the bulk of the antibody tests are being reported from several commercial and private labs like LabCorp and Quest.

The state has new contracts with three private labs as well as a prior contract with LabCorp. The state updated its contract with LabCorp this week to include pricing for COVID-19 tests. Beyond that, data isn’t publicly available to show which additional private labs and hospitals are included in the daily figures Virginia officials have been reporting. 

VPM requested a breakdown of which labs have been including antibody tests in their reports but was told “we don’t have the data broken down this way,” and in a follow-up inquiry was told “our reports are not sorted by reporting labs but rather by demographics. It would be confusing to report by lab and compare it to our case data because if a person has more than one test in a day, we deduplicate the data.” 

The data release Thursday morning also comes after the publication of an article in The Atlantic critiquing Virginia’s decision to mix the test results “a new low” in data standards.Today’s story in the Atlantic amplifies what the Richmond Times Dispatch had already reported: Doctor Northam and his team are committing malpractice with Virginia’s testing program,” wrote House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert in a statement. 

Northam took to Twitter Thursday morning, announcing he recently found out about the data issue, but immediately directed his team to report data for the two tests separately going forward.  

“I am a doctor, and I have said all along that I will act based on science and data—and the data must be reliable and up-to-date, so we can make informed decisions based on the facts,” Northam said on Twitter. “Going forward, the @VDHgov [Virginia Department of Health Twitter handle] website will break out the number of diagnostic tests.”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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