Up until now the only way for most people to get tested for COVID-19 is if you show clear symptoms and have a referral from a medical professional. Either that, or by being a politician, an NBA player or a celebrity.
But a new study done in coordination with the University of Miami and Miami-Dade County plans to change that in a way researchers hope will better help tackle the outbreak.
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Researchers will soon start giving random tests for the novel coronavirus to residents of Miami-Dade County, whether they currently fit the narrow criteria for testing or not.
“The reason we want it to be random is we don’t want to only screen individuals who have symptoms,” said Erin Kobetz, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “We want to understand the prevalence of infection for people who don’t have symptoms, because one of the things we’ve heard as we look to national and international news is that for every one person we’re testing, that there are also ten to eleven other individuals who are also infected.”
Miami-Dade County has purchased 10,000 tests, and a yet-to-be-determined number of them will be dedicated to the study. The idea is to set out to all corners of the county, accounting for the distribution of age, ethnicity, gender, and economic status. The random tests will be continuously taken over a four to five week period with the goal of using that information to locate specific areas where the county government should focus its response to the crisis.
“Once those areas are identified, they can be targeted with more testing once more tests become available,” said Kobetz.
She said she has not seen any other cities or counties attempt to gather this kind of “public health surveillance data” as part of an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Not yet,” she said. “I kind of think we’re on the forefront of discovery.”
The need for locally-derived data on infections is important for the “long term perspective,” she said. The information can help prepare local hospital systems for an influx of cases down the road, or possibly help municipal governments tailor curfews or other restrictions, to reflect the amount of infections that are actually within a community, not just people who have access to restricted testing.
The test kits that have been purchased by the County are different from the nose swab tests that have been broadly used across the nation. Those tests can take days to retrieve results. The new tests have newly been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and only require a drop of blood.
“They will be able to generate a result in less than half an hour,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a video statement this week.
The timeline for when random tests will start is still being figured out, said Kobetz. Specific details about the testing are still being hammered out between the University of Miami and the county government, but it could start as early as next week.
“I’ve never seen research move on this accelerated a timeline,” said Kobetz. “I think I was reached out to by the Mayor’s office last Thursday, and we already have a sampling frame. We’re moving in a much quicker way than I’ve ever been a part of in fifteen years of federally funded research”