On Friday, Hawaii Pacific Health announced it would cover the cost of COVID-19 antibody tests for its employees.

By 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon, about 1,400 employees had already signed up.

“We knew we’d like to understand how much asymptomatic virus infection there’s been among our employees,” said Dr. Melinda Ashton, HPH’s executive vice president and chief quality officer.

“All of the information tells us there’s a lot of people who get this virus who don’t get sick and recover. So this blood test helps us to identify folks like that as well as people who know that they were sick.”

A Hawaii Pacific Health employee gets his blood tested for COVID-19 antibodies. Hawaii Pacific Health

The blood tests, also known as serologic tests, may identify exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, but that’s currently pretty much all the information the tests can reliably provide.

Antibodies do not necessarily mean someone is immune to the virus. It is also possible for people with antibodies to still be contagious.

Are The Tests Reliable?

The tests may also pinpoint who could become a plasma donor to aid other COVID-19 positive patients’ recovery. But most of the tests have been unreliable, and very few have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I think the science to test is reasonable,” Ashton said. “The interpretation of the results is absolutely uncertain.”

Hawaii Pacific Health employs 7,200 people on Kauai and Oahu. In the coming weeks, they’ll go to Clinical Labs Hawaii sites to get some of their blood taken.

Ashton expects fewer than 5% of those who volunteer to be tested will be found to have been exposed. The hospital network plans to collect data about the results, but will not make any quarantine decisions for its workers based on those findings.

“We’re really more interested in the population aspect of this than we are having individual results for every employee,” Ashton said. “Nothing changes. They still wear the same personal protective equipment at work if they’re working with patients and they’ll still wear a mask in public.”

In New York, antibody testing has shown that as many as one in five New Yorkers had been exposed to COVID-19. And more than half of the cases related to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt were asymptomatic.

The prevalence of the disease is much smaller in Hawaii, which is why Ashton says she doesn’t expect to see a large proportion of employees exposed.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding antibodies, Hawaii public health and government officials have not yet mentioned whether antibody testing will be part of a plan to reopen the economy.

The Hawaii Department of Health has not endorsed their use, according to Edward Desmond, administrator of the Hawaii State Laboratories Division.

When asked what type of testing would be necessary to reopen the economy and lift mandatory quarantine restrictions on all travelers, Desmond says it will depend on scientific developments.

“Until we understand the performance characteristics of these tests and how they relate to patient care, and how they relate to clinical care, we really can’t decide what tools are going to be needed,” he said. “It may be a combination of clinical findings and lab testing that will enable us to clear people for travel.”

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