Gov. Phil Murphy loves to explain that New Jersey has more than 100 COVID-19 testing sites, that a saliva test developed by Rutgers University could be the key to mass testing in the future and how the recent acquisitions of thousands of tests — and swabs — from the federal government may allow the state to soon double the amount of its daily tests.
But, there’s no reason to stop there.
So said Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati, who said broad-based testing will be the biggest factor in the state’s ability to reopen and return to any type of normalcy.
“There’s one issue that’s lurking out there that we don’t have our arms around,” he told ROI-NJ. “It was a problem at the beginning, it’s a problem now and it’s going to be problematic in the future, if we don’t figure this out. And that’s the issue of access to testing.
“So, while I’m optimistic that we’re in a better position to (handle the pandemic), I am not optimistic that we have command over the testing issue. And that is a big priority.”
Gragnolati compared the containment of COVID-19 to the containment of a forest fire.
“We’ve had to really kind of control the forest fire first,” he said. “What the testing does is let us know who has or does not have the disease, so we can put the right protective equipment in place on our team members to care for that patient, because PPE is still in limited supply.”
That’s the first need for increased testing. The second, Gragnolati said, comes with the inevitable spread.
“One of the things we know about forest fires is that we will have flare-ups,” he said. “And those flare-ups are going to be driven by community exposures, and the community exposures are going to be driven by moving away from some of the restrictions that have been put in place.”
Gragnaloti acknowledges we can’t have everything closed until we get a vaccine. But, he said broad-based testing is the only thing that will give health care workers the ability to isolate these flare-ups more quickly.
“We’ve got to have access to testing to determine whether people have COVID, so we can identify where these flareups are and make sure that we do the contact tracing so we can keep it contained in a small area and not respread, creating another forest fire.”
Then, there’s this: More testing will allow health care officials to do more procedures — both emergency and elective — with more confidence for both health care workers and patients. In some cases, these are necessary procedures patients have been putting off because of a fear of getting COVID-19.
“As we begin to have more care that is urgent, but not emergent, we have to have techniques in place preoperatively, where we test patients,” he said. “It’s not unlike when you go in for a surgery and you might need an EKG or some lab tests to determine clotting factors or other things. The new normal is going to be getting a COVID test.”
The need for testing expands beyond diagnostic tests, too, Gragnolati said. Accurate testing to determine who has COVID-19 antibodies is important, too.
This one, he said, is even more complicated. Antibody tests are producing a lot of false positives — meaning some people think they have the antibodies and they don’t. And, then, there’s this: It’s not clear if having the antibodies means you can’t get the virus.
“We want to be sure we can tell who has the antibodies,” he said. “And we don’t want people to get overconfident just because they have taken a test that indicates that they have antibodies against COVID and have them feel that’s a license to ignore all of the responsible things that we’re going to have to do until we get a vaccine.”