Saliva testing ramps up to reduce COVID processing backlog

A new milestone has been reached as New Jersey ramps up its coronavirus testing program. Doctors at Rutgers say they can now provide the state with 30,000 tests per day with results in just 48 hours.

“It says are you positive today or are you negative today. It can be different tomorrow; it can be different yesterday. It is just one point in time and it says are you positive at that time. It’s important information, but it doesn’t give any guarantee that you’re not going to be exposed and positive moving forward,” said Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

The saliva-based coronavirus tests developed at Rutgers RUCDR Infinite Biologics were granted emergency authorization by the FDA after the state experienced lengthy wait times due to increased outbreaks in other states.

“If someone gets tested, for example, on a Monday. And they’re waiting for their results, and let’s assume they’re negative on Monday. They go out on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they get their results on Friday. The results say they’re negative. They’re continuing to think they’re negative. It’s entirely possible that they contracted the disease Tuesday through Thursday,” said Dr. Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and professor at Montclair State University.

Silvera says the lag time between testing and waiting for results allows for the continuing spread of the virus.

“There’s two parts to this. There’s the availability of the test, which have been ramped up. But there’s the processing of the test, which is really where the lag seems to be happening and where that bottleneck is. And so it looks like what we need is a bigger investment in our lab capacity to process these test in a timely matter,” Silvera said.

To eliminate lag times, New Jersey is developing its own statewide model for public and private testing. $94 million from federal funds in the form of grants will go to hospitals and existing resources to decrease the turnaround time for testing.

“The funding is coming from the CDC,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Our hope is that our hospitals will increase their capacity — new equipment; more manpower; and have the ability to rely on ourselves, decrease the turnaround time — and reach out into the community, not only doing their own inpatients and outpatients, but reach out to the community and provide testing for our vulnerable populations.”

“The CARES ACT ordered insurance companies to pay for the test. Insurance companies must pay for it with no deductible. And even people who don’t insurance, the CARES ACT included money to pay for it. So who’s paying for it? Essentially, the federal government is paying for it,” Strom said.

Both health experts stress that random testing, while helpful, is not useful unless it’s followed by contact tracing to identify a case and, in turn, prevent the spread of the virus.