Pictured: The Abbot Laboratories antibody tests were tested by the University of Washington.
by Kimberly Rivers
A coronavirus antibody testing program and study is underway in Ventura County, aimed at determining the prevalence of people with antibodies in certain vulnerable populations to ensure the county is prepared for future responses to the virus.
“There’s still much we don’t know about the epidemiology of COVID-19,” said Dr. Paul Hsu, epidemiologist with UCLA, which is conducting the study. “We’re finding that this disease affects certain groups disproportionately, and this study will help us learn about populations that may not have been well-studied in the past.”
“We are interested in . . . what subgroups have a higher level of exposure,” said assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (Dist-44). Latinos, farm workers, service workers, seniors, frontline public safety and hospital personnel are included in the groups of particular interest. The study wants to determine if antibody occurrence is “higher or lower in those groups,” which Irwin says will help in “policy decisions, not just in Ventura County.”
“In other surveys, Latinos and blacks are disproportionately affected by COVID,” continued Irwin. The hope is that the information provided will “give us information to help develop strategies to be ready for the next round of the disease if it comes.”
When individuals come to a testing site, first they will have the Abbott Laboratories blood test. If that is positive, Irwin explains, serum from that person will be sent to the county for testing using the Bio-Rad test. The information provided by these tests will include countywide prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies, frequency in specific sub-groups based on high exposure or vulnerability, how long antibodies stay present in a recovered subject and a comparison of data to test accuracy and prevent false positives.
“We are hoping those [who test positive] will have antibody levels measured over time,” said Irwin. That will help researchers gain a better understanding of the level of immunity conveyed by antibodies, which is one of the unknowns doctors and policy makers are grappling with in deciding how to respond to the virus.
“We are moving quickly into testing the current COVID-19 prevalence in vulnerable populations throughout Ventura County to help understand and hopefully mitigate the effects of the pandemic in our community,” said Dr. Todd Larsen, medical director for the Oxnard Fire Department. “This will be a sustained effort on the part of all our public and private partners as we attempt to delineate how the disease is impacting our county over time.”
Irwin said a major issue is that “when you just put up free test sites, folks that speak English, the middle class, those who are following all of this closely, are very likely to go to those sites, so you get a disproportionate [sampling] of a certain demographic,” and miss others. Researchers are therefore partnering with community organizations to get a true cross-section of the community, not just self-selecting individuals coming to a testing center.
“Trusted community partners” include the Oxnard Fire Department, Ventura County Community Foundation, California Lutheran University and Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP). These organizations will assist in getting substantial members of subgroups to agree to take part.
“As a county-wide nonprofit organization that works with our most vulnerable population, we fully support this effort to test as many in our community as possible,” said Andres Herrera, president of El Concilio Family Services. “This pandemic has affected some [members] of the hardest-to-reach population. To prepare us to help and protect this population, we need as much information as possible.”
Last week, Driscoll Berries of Oxnard had a testing day and the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks will offer antibody testing to it’s nearly 5,000 clients who are under- or uninsured or benefit from the clinic’s food distribution.
All testing is fully confidential and encrypted in compliance with HIPPA rules. Irwin said only one doctor at St. John’s Hospital will know the name of a person who tests positive for the antibodies, as that doctor will be calling the people to let them know and ask them to continue with the study. Those who test positive will also be emailed a link where the person will use a unique code to see their testing results. For those without Internet access, several testing sites will allow those tested to come in and use their computers to check results.
The study includes a two-week period of intensive testing in Ventura and Oxnard, plus 10 testing locations set up by Ventura County in underserved neighborhoods.
“The county will be doing the blood draws,” Irwin said. “The first priority will be the neighbors [of the testing sites] but anyone can get tested.”
Irwin said that the effort to get a truly random sample is challenging and will include first a mailing of 300 postcards in Oxnard. “We will do everything we can to drive those 300 people to the testing sites.” Two months later, 2,000 postcards will be sent to randomly selected residents across the county. “The whole idea is to see the sero-prevelance, first in Oxnard and then in the county.”
Irwin hopes everyone will “understand the benefit of being part of the study to help figure out how we deal with this. They will be doing their part to figure out the future response.”
All testing associated with this project is free. Up-to-date testing location information is available at www.oxnard.org/antibodytesting/.
Online information on the Abbott Lab testing process HERE.