County Looks To Quickly Ramp Up Antibody Testing

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New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo tours a Northwell Health laboratory in New Hyde Park with Northwell CEO Michael Dowling.
(Photo credit: Kevin Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo)

Nassau County is quickly becoming one of the main hubs for coronavirus antibody testing in New York as the state looks to aggressively expand its capacity for the tests as part of the next phase in dealing with the pandemic.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week that the state would roll out an antibody testing program he called the most aggressive in the nation to help get a better understanding of exactly how far coronavirus has spread.

The human body develops antibodies to combat a pathogen it has encountered, which means that anybody confirmed to have coronavirus antibodies must have had and recovered from coronavirus. Antibodies also help the body fight off future infections from those same pathogens, and their presence in many cases means the people who have particular antibodies are now immune to the disease that prompted their creation. While scientists are not yet entirely sure if coronavirus antibodies provide immunity to COVID-19, Cuomo said that seeing how many New Yorkers have them is a crucial step on the road to rousing the state from its shutdown.

“Any plan to start to reopen the economy has to be based on data and testing, and we have to make sure our antibody and diagnostic testing is up to the scale we need so we can safely get people back to work,” Cuomo said. “This will be the first true snapshot of exactly how many people were infected by COVID-19 and where we are as a population and will help us to reopen and rebuild without jeopardizing what we’ve already accomplished.”

The governor made those comments while touring a Northwell Health research laboratory in New Hyde Park last week. Northwell is leading the antibody testing efforts in the county, hoping to make them widely available to the public after a couple weeks of preliminary work and tests of their employees confirmed to have COVID-19.

“We’ve actually been working with some of the antibody tests for the last two or three weeks or so,” Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health labs, said. “So far as part of our validation we’ve tested about 200 front-line staff members. The test seems to be behaving the way we want it to behave, so we’re moving forward with setting up more testing and ramping up our capacity as fast as we possibly can.”

With preliminary testing underway at hospitals throughout Long Island, Nassau County executive Laura Curran stressed the need to make antibody testing as widely available as possible in her state of the county address last Thursday.

“Once an antibody test is validated and approved, we need fast, reliable testing kits at multiple locations,” Curran said. “Our first responders and health care workers will be first in line to get tested for antibodies, and as we plan to restart society, large-scale testing is key.”

In the meantime, Curran said the county is focused on ramping up viral testing, which determines if a person currently has COVID-19, in the county’s hardest-hit communities like Freeport and Hempstead, many of which have not previously had health care facilities robust enough to meet the challenges the pandemic presents.

New York State has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any state in the country by far, in large part due to a relatively high amount of testing for the virus. The 32,124 confirmed positive cases in Nassau County alone dwarfs the total number of confirmed cases in Texas by more than 10,000 as of Friday, April 24.

But experts believe that widespread antibody testing may confirm coronavirus has infected even more New Yorkers than can currently be confirmed.

Currently there are 263,460 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York State, approximately 1.35 percent of the state’s 19.45 million people when using 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Preliminary antibody tests conducted on supermarket customers throughout the state last week found that nearly 14 percent of the 3,000 people tested had coronavirus antibodies. In New York City, more than 21 percent of tests came back positive.

While preliminary testing hints that the total number of COVID-19 cases in the state may be far greater than initially thought, the governor said it also opens up the possibility that the fatality rate from the illness is much lower than expected.

Taken as a whole with data showing hospital discharges continue to outpace admissions on a daily basis, Curran struck a hopeful tone in her address to the county that Nassau will endure through the pandemic.

“I want every Nassau County resident to know that we will recalibrate, we will recover and Nassau County will emerge stronger than ever,” Curran said. “As we continue to manage this devastating health crisis, we won’t procrastinate planning a safe, methodical economic reactivation in coordination with our regional partners.”

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