Amid calls for more local COVID-19 testing, the Mobile City Council, on Tuesday, approved the purchase of 6,000 coronavirus rapid serum test kits.
The contract with Test Kits at Home will cost the city $84,350 and those particular tests, which are used to detect virus antibodies in a patient’s blood, will be used at two testing sites the city has set up at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and Infirmary Health’s Diagnostic and Medical clinic.
While these tests are not Food and Drug Administration-approved for diagnosing COVID-19, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said they would help the city and hospitals get more information about the disease’s pervasiveness in the local community and among health care workers.
“The gold standard is the PCR (nasal swab) test,” Stimpson said. “The rapid serum test is a screening tool.”
Once a patient tests positive for the antibodies, which can indicate either the presence of active infection, or that the body has recently fought it off, Executive Director of Public Safety James Barber said the patient would then be given a nasal swab test to confirm a current diagnosis.
The city has also received other rapid serum tests from Synergy Laboratories and owner Brad Pitts, Stimpson said. The blood tests are about $14 each and are more cost effective when dealing with more widespread testing. The nasal swab tests run about $50 each, he said.
With the city involved in the purchase, Stimpson and Barber each said that testing is open to the public, although residents would have to call ahead to get an appointment. The tests can be paid for through insurance, but Barber said there is no charge for those who are uninsured.
Councilman Fred Richardson advocated for more testing during the Zoom-enabled meeting Tuesday morning. The District 1 councilman said about 90 percent of the calls and texts he receives from constituents are related to the dearth of testing in Mobile County. Richardson asked when mass testing for patients with or without symptoms might begin.
“People want to be tested, especially those who have been exposed,” Richardson said. “They have no symptoms but are living in fear. To be tested now, you have to have symptoms. These are people who are in fear and believe their health has been compromised by somebody else.”
Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bert Eichold told Richardson that the area does not have the capacity to do that kind of mass testing at this time.
“I don’t think anything we have is doing mass testing,” he said. “That’s probably not going to happen in the next six, eight, or 10 weeks.”
Eichold agreed with Richardson on the need for mass testing and pointed to South Korea, which he said tested its population ”multiple times” and “got control” of the virus’ outbreak.
“It’ll be weeks, if not months — several months — before we get there,” Eichold said. “I don’t see it being available until June 20, doing the kind of testing you’re talking about.”
The availability of tests is a problem nationwide, but because Alabama is now ranked in the top half of states in reference to the number of infected there might be, Eichold said more relief may be coming soon.
Mobile County currently has 686 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths due to the virus have been reported locally, Eichold said. Of the 3,906 nasal swab tests given in the county, 686 patients have tested positive, which he said indicates a 17-percent positive rate in the county.
One nursing home in the city is having a particularly hard time with the disease and the Alabama National Guard has been called in to help “decontaminate” the facility.
“That should be completed in a very short period of time,” he added.
Currently, as has been the case, local hospital bed capacity exceeds demand, Eichold said. The number of ventilators also exceeds demand. He told councilors that the average hospital stay is eight to nine days in Mobile.
As for the area’s peak, Eichold said the Mobile County Health Department has seen a downward trend in cases recently, but to determine whether the area has hit its peak or not, he said the trend would have to maintain that course for around five to seven days.
“I’m happy to say we have a trend that is going down now, and we’re optimistic that we’re close to a peak,” he said. “Just because we peak and we start to get things back to normal, it’s still there and everybody is at risk. Until we have a vaccine, everyone is vulnerable and it could come back.”
Eichold cautioned that even if COVID-19 cases peak this month, the virus could have a second wave in “three to four months,” which he compared to a similar lapse and return seen during a particularly deadly global flu outbreak in 1918.
“The second wave of the Spanish flu killed more people than the first wave,” he said.
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