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COVID-19 NC: Politics Seep Into Science Amid The Push For Widespread Testing

Politics mixed with the science of tracking the novel coronavirus’ spread this week when Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) participated in the rollout of a research study to track people who may have already had COVID-19 without knowing it.  North Carolina Health News founding editor Rose Hoban has been covering the story.  She spoke with BPR's Helen Chickering  about the study and the governor's path to gradual re-opening. 

 On Senate leader Phil Berger’s (R-Rockingham) participation in the rollout of a research study to track people who may have already had COVID-19 without knowing it: This is a legit study, they’re tracking the symptoms of a group of volunteers who are in the systems at Wake Forest Baptist and Atrium health, which is a so-called convenience sample, meaning it’s not completely randomized. But having those folks matched to an electronic medical record will help them to see if and when they get diagnosed with COVID. They’re using some newish technology made by a company called Scanwell, it’s an antibody test that’s only approved for research purposes, you put a drop of blood on a plastic card, and kind of like a home pregnancy test, you get an answer a few minutes later. That Scanwell technology is not completely ready for prime time, so they’re double checking by having the subjects take a micro sample of their blood and send that to a lab to cross check with the Scanwell test, making this study part of the validation research for Scanwell.                         

The political part about it is that it got sort of a hyped backing from Senate leader Phil Berger’s office, which called it pioneering and groundbreaking.  Berger used a hundred thousand dollars of legislative discretionary funds to kickstart the study, which will cost tens of millions that will come from elsewhere when it’s all said and done. And the other thing is that the Wake Forest people and Berger’s people didn’t coordinate with state health officials or the state’s public health apparatus.    

Berger said during his press conference that state health and human services secretary Mandy Cohen had been resistant to this kind of randomized study. Cohen will tell you she’s been focused on testing the people who are turning up in hospitals and conserving testing materials, those are in short supply and also conserving the protective gear you need to wear as you take the test. Anyway, she said that afternoon that she only learned about the study when Berger’s office announced it, and she had her scientists reach out to the Wake Forest Baptist researchers pretty much right away.

Testing, Tracing and Trends - words of the week. The big issue is how to get the state restarted, get people back to work, and that’s a focus at the local, state and national, even international level, right? So, Governor Cooper rolled out a plan that emphasizes these three things - which are basic public health tools - to try to surround outbreaks and insulate them from infecting a lot of other people. The idea is to really scale up testing for the disease much more aggressively. Then when you find a positive, you aggressively find and contact all the people that the person with the positive test may have come intocontact with. 

Credit NC Health News
Rose Hoban, NC Health News founding editor.

Again, this is like epidemiology one-oh-one. Finally, they will be watching trends to see how many positive tests we’re getting, how many hospitalizations we’re having, to see how the trends are going. You really don’t want to base your actions solely on deaths, right because they’re what’s called a “lagging indicator.” By the time you’re tracking a death, that person had been sick, perhaps infected others, ended up in the hospital and then died. You want to catch that person at the first part of the cycle, or even before, before they get exposed to the disease.

What are you and your staff working on for next week?  I’m doing something on the mental health of health care workers, we’ve got an investigation we’ll run on Monday about the nursing homes where patients have acquired and maybe died and we’re working on a story about how rural hospitals and community health centers are doing.  We've got a busy week!

About Rose Hoban:

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News,as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees in public health policy and journalism. She's reported on science, health, policy and research in NC since 2005. Contact: editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.