In the wake of shortages and widespread rationing, COVID-19 tests are becoming more available. But even as the state reopens, only those with symptoms may be tested in most cities.
On April 1st the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization to Atlanta-based Ipsum Diagnostics for its COVID-19 tests. The company now works with the Georgia Department of Public Health to provide test kits throughout the state.
In February, as the pandemic was beginning to spread to the United States, a series of blunders resulted in a national shortage of COVID-19 tests. Only a few public labs were authorized to conduct COVID-19 tests, and the only test kit provided to them by the CDC was frequently defective.
To end the test kit shortage, the FDA began issuing Emergency Use Authorizations to commercial testing companies like Ipsum Diagnostics, allowing them to circumvent the normal approval process for their test kits. This resulted in a large number of new test kits becoming available, although some, particularly antibody tests, later proved to be inaccurate.
The tests produced by Ipsum Diagnostics are “RT-PCR-based SARS-CoV-2 assay,” according to the pharmaceutical industry publication, “P&T Community.” The abbreviation stands for “Reverse Transcriptase–Polymerase Chain Reaction,” which means the test uses molecules to copy any DNA from the virus found in a patient’s mucus sample until there is enough of it to be detected. According to NPR, PCR tests are the most accurate type of test available, but are also the slowest, often taking days to produce results.
Since many COVID-19 tests in Georgia are PCR tests, data published by the Department of Public Health on new COVID-19 cases may lag behind the real number of new cases. This could result in an underreporting of new COVID-19 infections.
Georgia Voice interviewed Mayor Bo Dorough of Albany, Georgia, a city which was an early hotspot for COVID-19 cases. He spoke to the fact that testing had just become available even to those without symptoms in Albany: “Earlier this week the National Guard set up a testing site here in Albany, and anyone in Dougherty and contiguous counties—and several other counties in southwest Georgia—can get tested. What’s significant about that is almost everywhere else in the state you have to meet some kind of criteria.”
Earlier, when Georgia Voice interviewed Albany resident and WALB-10 digital content producer Kim McCullough on April 22, testing in Albany was still restricted to those who had symptoms: “If you don’t have certain symptoms then they’re not going to allow you to get a test.”
Until recently, COVID-19 testing throughout the state was often the responsibility of local health care systems. In the city of Albany, the local Phoebe Putney Health System was the primary testing center until recently, when the National Guard opened a major testing center there.
When Georgia Voice contacted the Atlanta mayor’s office requesting an interview to find out more about the city’s testing efforts, the office responded with a link to the website atlstrong.org/testing. The webpage has a disclaimer at the top, which reads: “Please Note: The City of Atlanta does not independently conduct or control COVID-19 testing but is providing the following information with our community.”
According to atlstrong.org, there are four drive-through testing sites in the Atlanta area: Old Turner Field, Greenbriar Mall, Georgia Tech, and Mercedes Benz Stadium. The Old Turner Field and Greenbriar Mall sites are both managed by the National Guard, while the Georgia Tech site is managed by CVS, and the testing site at Mercedes Benz Stadium is “managed by the Blank Foundation and CORE.” All four sites require a prior online screening, and restrict testing to those actively exhibiting symptoms.
CVS is promising on its website that results at its testing centers will be available to patients in approximately 30 minutes. Results can only be delivered at that speed by antibody tests, which at present are potentially less accurate than PCR tests, according to NPR.
There is some good news, however: according to Dorough, “Last weekend the number of COVID patients in [Putney Memorial] hospital fell below one hundred for the first time since March 21, and is now down to 57, which is a third of what it was at the high point.”
Unfortunately, many health experts warn that Georgia’s reopening will result in a new surge of cases, endangering the fragile gains we have made. When asked about the governor’s order to reopen the state, Dorough echoed their sentiments: “I think you’re going to see a [resurgence] in the whole county, and in many other counties.”