A medical worker asks a young man to roll down his window as Children’s National Hospital tests children and young adults for COVID-19 at a drive-through (drive-in) testing site at Trinity University on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

A medical worker asks a young man to roll down his window as Children’s National Hospital tests children and young adults for COVID-19 at a drive-through (drive-in) testing site at Trinity University on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

New swab material to boost COVID-19 testing process

By Martha Bellisle | The Associated Press

SEATTLE — As state and federal leaders develop plans to re-open the country after weeks of a coronavirus shutdown, health experts said one thing must happen first — more people need to be tested.

But a shortage of the swabs used in the testing kits as well limits on personal protective equipment worn by the people taking the samples has slowed the testing process.

Research by doctors in the Pacific Northwest is helping to fill those voids. A study by an infectious disease physician in the Seattle area found that COVID-19 specimens can successfully be taken with a polyester swab, and the sample can be held in saline, as opposed to the nylon swabs and the special transport material currently used.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday changed its guidelines to allow these swabs and saline to be used in testing.

“We unblocked a lot of the supply chain shortages by using something that’s widely available,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu told the Associated Press on Friday.

Tu, an infectious disease physician at the Everett Clinic, co-authored the study with the University of Washington and UnitedHealth Group.

Tu also co-authored a study that found a less-invasive coronavirus testing method allows sick patients to take their own samples, which will protect health care workers, eliminate the need for personal protective gear and speed up the testing process.

The FDA also recently updated its recommendations to allow the self-nose-swab process to be used on patients who have symptoms, said Stephanie Caccome, an FDA spokesperson.

The state Department of Health recently recommended the self-testing method to the Department of Social and Health Services as it deals with COVID-19 outbreaks, said Lisa Stromme, a spokesperson for the health agency.

“I believe the pivot on ordering (the new method) was because the tests are easier to do, just as effective, use less PPE, and aren’t as uncomfortable,” she said.

“Patient administered collection is really a game-changer,” Tu said.

Their study involved 500 patients across the state. Their samples accurately detected the disease in 90 percent of positive patients.

“The results of this study show that patients’ self-collected specimens from the front of the nose are just as effective and sensitive as specimens collected by clinicians, nurses and medical assistants using a nasopharyangeal technique,” Tu said.

The process uses the same testing kits used at clinics and hospitals, and the samples must still be processed at a lab, but instead of relying on a health care worker to take the sample, the patient can do it themselves.

The current method requires a health-care worker to stick a long Q-tip into the patient’s nostril and swipe specimens from an area behind the nose, sometimes causing the person to choke, gag or cough. That’s why the person administrating the test must be covered head to toe or risk being sprayed with infected droplets.

The process allows the patient to swirl the swab inside their own nose. The swab is placed in a container and sent to a lab for testing.

King County health officials used a nasal sample method for a program that aimed to determine how the new coronavirus has spread through the region. Volunteers used “swab-and-send” test kits to collect their own specimens and then sent them to a lab for testing.

The Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, the first COVID-19 surveillance program in the United States, tested more than 4,000 samples in 18 days and had 44 positive results.

“SCAN is a way for King County residents to help us better understand the true extent of the outbreak,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Seattle and the county.

King County also expanded testing for first-responders and health care workers. If they have symptoms and can’t get tested through their doctor or workplace, the county will provide testing.

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