Antigen test to aid tracking of possible COVID-19 cases

Additional testing would be needed to confirm results

A fast antigen COVID-19 test being added to county health departments’ tool kits is expected to lead to more people being treated as having the virus, but such cases will not be included in the official tally until more testing can be done, health officers said.

The antigen tests take only 15 minutes to provide results, and those who test positive are treated as a confirmed case of COVID-19 but will not be added to case totals until they receive the results of the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that have been used since March on the North Olympic Peninsula, said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

Antigen tests look for a protein that is on the surface of the novel coronavirus, as opposed to the PCR test that looks for genetic information of the novel coronavirus. The state is starting to receive about 150,000 antigen tests a week to be divided among the various health departments, Locke said.

Locke is considering adding a category on the Jefferson County Public Health case information page to highlight the probable cases and to separate them from those that have been confirmed.

“We have to treat antigen tests as positives, but they have more risks of being false positives,” Locke said.

“That’s one of the reasons for the different way the state handles it. These antigen tests are just not as accurate as the lab-based tests.

“Sometimes other things that are in your nasal secretions or saliva will cause the [antigen] test to falsely read positive.”

Places the antigen tests will be used include schools, jails and homeless shelters, where quick test results are needed.

But having the two separate tests can make reporting cases confusing, Locke said.

“We have what I call the ‘gold standard’ PCR test, and we’ll have this quick test, this rapid test that you get the results for in 15 minutes, but you pay a bit of a price for that,” he said.

The antigen test’s speed and low cost — tests costs as little as $5 on the market — make it worth using, and the majority of the time when they test positive, they’re going to represent true infection, Locke said.

Not every person who tests positive with an antigen will get a PCR test as well, he added. It’s more likely to be considered a confirmed case without a PCR test if the person has been in contact with a confirmed case or shows symptoms of COVID-19.

“These [tests] are just on a little test card, so it’s completely portable, can be done in any medical office, and it’s a significant development. It’s going to allow us to do a lot more testing,” Locke said.

School district testing

The Associated Press reported that several school districts in Washington and Idaho have decided to not report new COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but so far on the Peninsula, there haven’t been any cases in the schools, said Locke and Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer.

Locke said the choice to disclose confirmed cases among students or staff lies with the district, and he believes that if an exposure happened, schools would at least let parents know.

In Clallam County, all the districts agreed to send a letter to all families if they have a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, and they already have prepared the letters in advance, Unthank said.

Port Angeles School District took it one step further and created a public dashboard that records all positive cases and the number of people who are currently in quarantine. All statistics read zero on Wednesday, Unthank said.

The dashboard can be found on the district’s website, portangelesschools.org.

“I do feel confident that our schools will report [cases] and send that message out publicly if they have a positive case,” Unthank said.

Four new cases

Clallam County confirmed four new COVID-19 cases Wednesday. Two were household contacts of previously confirmed cases and one is connected with a workplace outbreak outside the county to which a prior Clallam case is tied.

The fourth case was still being investigated on Wednesday, Unthank said.

Clallam County has confirmed a total of 271 cases of COVID-19 since March, with 13 active cases and one death, according to Clallam County Public Health data.

Jefferson County did not add a new case to its website on Wednesday but was investigating a positive antigen test, Locke said.

The two cases thought to be confirmed on Tuesday were not added to the county’s total, as they were positive antigen tests and not PCR tests, he said.

Jefferson County has confirmed 81 cases of COVID-19 since March, with 10 active cases and no deaths, according to Jefferson County Public Health data.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5 or at [email protected].

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