South Florida Cities Begin Testing Employees For COVID-19 Antibodies

May 22, 2020

As South Florida cities begin to reopen, some are turning to antibody tests to keep tabs on the spread of COVID-19 among workers.

This week, Coral Springs tested 700 employees who volunteered for antibody tests. More than half were first responders and all tested negative. Parkland, Davie, Margate and Hialeah also will test employees, said Coral Springs Fire Battalion Chief Chris Bator.

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The tests are not being used to gauge immunity, he said.

“As we go out and are doing more and more of those community services and engaging with our community, our residents and businesses, those exposure rates are going to increase,” Bator said. “So it's important for us to have basically a baseline.”

Confusion over what information antibody testing so far provides grew as Florida began rolling out reopening plans and expanded antibody testing. The state offers antibody testing at about a dozen sites around the state, including Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Some cities, including Bal Harbour and Surfside, also offer the testing.

In press conferences around the state to announce the tests, Gov. Ron DeSantis said antibodies provide immunity, although for how long is unclear.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s not yet clear if an infection provides immunity to being infected again. The tests only determine that the body has had an immune response.

Neither the CDC nor the American Medical Association recommend people get tested for antibodies unless they’re part of a research study and worry that confusing messages over immunity may lead some to be less cautious about social distancing rules that prevent the spread of the virus.

In areas where the disease is not widespread, results from a single antibody test can’t accurately detect a prior infection or whether a person truly has antibodies, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency says it does not currently know the prevalence of people with antibodies in the population and it could widely vary from place to place.

Questions over the accuracy of tests also mounted after the FDA rolled back rules for emergency use in March and dozens of tests entered the market. The FDA reversed that decision this month and now requires makers to provide confirmation of accuracy. Only a dozen antibody tests have been approved under those guidelines.

In Coral Springs, Bator said the Florida Department of Health provided his city with enough Cellex tests to test employees and repeat the test in six weeks and 12 weeks. Cellex was one of a handful of the early tests that received FDA approval.

Results from the tests will be forwarded to the state health department as researchers try to determine whether an infection provides immunity and how long it might last, he said.

“Unless you're doing antibody testing and doing it over a period of time, and tracking and tracing it, I'm not sure how much that that's going to be valid,” he said.

The tests will not be used to determine whether a worker should return to work, he said. For that, the city is relying on diagnostic tests.

City officials hope the testing reassures residents who they worry may be relucatant to call for help for fear of coming into contact with rescue workers, Bator said.

“There's a perception that we're part of the problem,” he said, causing people to put off calling for help. “Early intervention is so, so important to get them the right care. If they wait longer, we're dealing with a more difficult situation.