To reopen, NJ needs faster, more accurate COVID tests

Deptford nurse Sharon Alston got tested for COVID-19 last month at a CVS and waited 12 nerve-wracking days for results. Even worse, it came back positive.

“You know, just the fact that it took so long, it’s just stressful,” Alston said. “And I almost passed out in my chair. I’m hearing this and I’m going, ‘you’re kidding me?’ It was very concerning and very disheartening, how long it took to find that out.”

Dr. Judith Lightfoot sent Alston for a rapid antigen test, which came back negative in a matter of minutes. She says, CVS claimed it was “not their standard practice.”

“I got on the phone with them and talked to them, I said, ‘What kind of place is this?’ You’re offering the community a test and your results are coming back two weeks later? That’s unacceptable,” said Lightfoot.

Problems like false positives and long test result turnarounds underscore the dilemma facing New Jersey schools and businesses as they look to reopen. Lakewood schools is testing students and staff all this week with results available in three days. But how valid are those results?

“For that day, for that moment, at that time, those individuals that you test, if they’re all negative, then they’re negative. But that doesn’t give them clearance for the week. It gives them clearance for the period all those individuals are isolated,” Lightfoot said.

Enter Abbott Labs’ new $5 rapid antigen test called BinAxNow. It’s on a self-contained card that school nurses and pharmacist technicians can easily administer with a nose swab. Stick the swab into the card and wait maybe 15 minutes, like a pregnancy test.

“If two bands are present, control and sample lines, this is a positive test,” said Dr. John Hackett, vice president of Applied Research and Technology at Abbott Diagnostics.

“We’ve designed BinAxNow to be used in mass testing, where there’s places like schools and universities and workplaces,” said Andrea Wainer, executive vice president at Abbott Rapid and Molecular Diagnostics. “We anticipate they’re going to see this as a very valuable tool to be able to create safer environments for their employees and their students, and other places people gather.”

Abbott’s lab trials for BinAxNow show high reliability, and it’s aiming to deliver 50 million tests per month, starting Oct. 1. But the Food and Drug Administration has approved BinAxNow only for people showing symptoms. New Jersey’s Department of Health says it’d welcome access to a test like BinAxNow, but meanwhile, the Murphy Administration’s pinned its COVID testing future on a Rutgers’ saliva test, where people spit in a tube and can get results in 48 hours. Problem is, some doctors, like Lightfoot, apparently don’t completely trust it. Would she order a different test to confirm results?

“Because of the validity, because I don’t believe, feel as though it’s an adequate test, yes,” Lightfoot said.

Jersey City’s Health and Human Services Director Stacey Flanagan says, they doesn’t offer saliva tests though its developers stand by it.

“We’ve heard a lot of doctors believe the swab test is the better test. It is the most accurate,”  said Flanagan.

Long test result turnarounds in Jersey City prompted officials there to switch labs, they’re now using Mako. But looking ahead, to schools and businesses reopening, she’s concerned.

“I don’t believe there’s enough good, fast testing available yet. We’re still testing about 300 people a day in our facility, but we should be able to pump that up to 1,000 people a day,” Flanagan said.

State health officials claim, New Jersey can now test 28,000 people a day, it’s pushing for 30,000, with an average four-day results turnaround. And it’s working on increasing COVID test capacity at hospitals. But it’ll apparently take more, to ramp up the kind of fast, accurate and available testing regimen required to confidently reopen New Jersey.