Getting our society back to some sense of normalcy will require several milestones to be met. And none are as important as finding out who has been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and who we might still need to protect if “herd immunity” doesn’t work the way scientists hope.
It’s one thing to get a diagnostic test when you show symptoms, but what about after the fact? Does your body have the antibodies your immune system releases to fight the virus? And do those antibodies mean you can fight off the chance of a re-infection?
Those are important questions Gov. Andrew Cuomo hoped to answer this past week when he sent out health workers to “randomly” test 3,000 people to see if they have the antibodies.
Nearly 14 percent of those who gave up a little bit of blood to be a part of the sample tested positive for the antibodies directly related to this latest coronavirus, Cuomo said last week. That could mean as many as 2.7 million people in New York alone may already have been exposed to the virus.
But there are some serious issues with this so-called random sample, starting with the fact that it’s not a random sample at all. It’s actually better known as a “convenience sample,” and is more akin to finding a few people at a shopping mall, and seeing how they react to the latest product.
Sure, you might get some interesting feedback, but its scientific efficacy is dubious, at best.
Even worse, it’s not clear if this serological test, developed by the state’s Wadsworth Center, is even an accurate test. It doesn’t seem to be listed as one of the four tests given preliminary approval by the Food and Drug Administration, and as late as last week, the city’s health department warned against false positives and false negatives from such tests.
Cuomo admitted up front that, statistically speaking, there were a lot of skewed variables involved. But he didn’t say too much about how accurate these tests are. While the 3,000 tests were part of a cumulative report, each person offering a sample was informed of their results, primarily by text message.
Yet, not even that message warned of possible false results, nor did any of the paperwork handed out to people standing in line for these tests, like they did last week in front of the Stop & Shop on Broadway.
As New York continues to “flatten” its curve, we may find ourselves relaxing the strict stay-at-home guidelines more and more. It won’t help if we also invest a lot of our confidence in tests that aren’t quite accurate.
Cuomo is on the right track in his efforts to see just how many New Yorkers have fought (and beat) this virus. He’s been great about putting all his cards on the table, except with these serological tests.
All this survey did was verify far more people were exposed to SARS-CoV-2 than currently tracked. But it failed to provide much else, except maybe some false hope.