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Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center to test area residents for COVID-19 antibodies

The Cape Girardeau County Commission approved $530,000 to test a representative sample of county citizens to determine if they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The County will pay for the study using federal CARES Act funding that was distributed by the state. Missouri received $2.38 billion of federal funding, with $9,253,142 allocated for Cape Girardeau County. Treasurer Roger Hudson said they expect to receive the funds later this week.

The federal funds must be used for necessary expenditures that were incurred due to the COVID-19 public health. The expenditures could not have been already budgeted and must be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020.

The study, which will be run by the public health center and will use SoutheastHEALTH’s testing capabilities, will provide a more accurate look at how prevalent COVID-19 has been in the county.

The study will require at least two percent of the county’s population, or about 1,600 residents, to receive a serology blood test to check for IGG antibodies. SoutheastHEALTH Lab Service Director Lauren Thomas said the IGG antibodies will be positive about eight to 10 days after someone is exposed to COVID-19.

“We have to realize that the nasal swab that we’ve been doing is what we call a molecular test, and it’s only positive when a person is actually infected with the virus,” Public Health Center Medical Director John Russell said. “That swab detects the actual virus. Serology testing through antibody testing tells us if a person has been exposed and been infected sometime with the virus.”

Further complicating current ideas of how widespread the virus is in the county is the knowledge that many people who have been exposed are asymptomatic.

“We know that there is a large number of folks that have come in contact with the virus, their immune system fought it off and they never had symptoms,” Russell said.

Russell said the study will help the county know how prevalent the virus is, adding that herd immunity requires at least 50-60 percent of the population to be exposed to the disease.

“This is a public health opportunity that doesn’t come along very often,” Russell said. “It involves the entire community and we have the opportunity to get really workable, worthwhile information to help guide policy decisions and policy makers as they move forward.”

The test will be free to those who participate in the study, although they will be required to come back for a second round of having their blood drawn in eight weeks so the County can see how much the disease spread during that time.

Russell said it would also be important that participants are representative of the population in regards of age, gender, race and geographic location.

Shauna Hoffman, SoutheastHEALTH vice president of marketing and business development, said they plan on dedicating some of SoutheastHEALTH’s lab stations to the study, as well as traveling to smaller communities to receive some of the samples. She added that SoutheastHEALTH patients may also be asked to participate.

“I do believe that we can get people who want to commit to know [if they have had the virus], but we may have to look at some incentives to get that survey sample,” Hoffman said. “We would work with the Cape Girardeau Public Health Center to support that.”

The Public Health Center will spend the rest of the week putting together public outreach and enrollment plans, with hopes to actually test subjects the following week. The Commission approved enough funds to cover around 2,500 tests per round of the study.

“We would like to do this fairly rapidly, particularly as we are going into reopening, to establish where is our baseline,” Russell said. The test will also help track where people are contracting the virus, and if those who have already had the virus are able to contract the virus a second time.

Russell said the Public Health Center will work on analyzing the data as the results come in. “Hopefully in two-and-a-half week’s time we will have some answers,” he said.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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