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VCU Health among 5 hospitals to participate in statewide COVID-19 antibody testing project


By Mary Kate Brogan

Some VCU Health patients may be eligible to participate in testing at their next appointment.

VCU Health is one of five sites across Virginia collecting antibody testing results as part of a statewide initiative to estimate how many people have been infected with COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.

VCU Health is coordinating antibody testing, also called serology testing, for the state’s central region of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) through the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, an initiative led by the University of Virginia.

A COVID-19 antibody test checks to see if you’ve ever had COVID-19. Many people have had the virus without displaying any symptoms. You may have had COVID-19 and never known it. Studies have found that 25 to 80 percent of people with COVID-19 are unaware they’ve had the disease.

VDH plans to enroll 5,000 people in the antibody testing project, then use the results to estimate the total number of Virginians who have been exposed to COVID-19. These estimates will help identify Virginians’ risk for COVID-19 by age, location and underlying health condition. The estimates will also help public health officials and Virginia hospitals plan for future health care needs.

Eligible VCU Health patients at one of our participating clinics may be offered antibody testing at their next appointment.

“If patients choose to participate in this study, they will know by way of an antibody test if they were previously infected and recovered from COVID-19,” said VCU Health epidemiologist Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VCU School of Medicine and leader of the VDH’s Central Region site. “While a positive antibody test does not assure immunity to future COVID-19 infection, we hope this data will help Virginia get a stronger grasp on the COVID-19 infection rate among Virginians so far.”

People who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies may be able to donate antibody-rich plasma, which could possibly save somebody’s life. VCU Medical Center began offering these plasma treatments, also known as convalescent plasma treatments, to COVID-19 patients in April. The treatments attempt to build up a patient’s immunity to the disease and speed recovery.

In addition to the statewide project, VCU Health offers antibody testing in its own labs. Patients can request antibody testing when making a doctor’s appointment or check-up.

Antibody tests vs. nasal swab tests: What’s the difference?

If you think you may have recently developed symptoms of COVID-19, you should request a COVID-19 nasal swab test rather than an antibody test, according to Lorin Bachmann, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Pathology at VCU School of Medicine. The nasal swab test detects active COVID-19 infection, which helps ensure you get the care you need.

Bachmann, co-director of clinical chemistry at VCU Health, leads antibody testing efforts at VCU Health labs, which started in May.

“The antibody test indicates if you have had a previous infection with COVID-19 and your body has produced antibodies to the virus,” Bachmann said. “Most patients will produce antibodies within 14 days from the date that COVID-19 symptoms started. You would not want to get an antibody test if it has been less than 14 days from when your symptoms started because that means that your body may not have had time to produce the antibodies that are detected by the test. Development of antibodies can take longer than 14 days in patients with conditions or medications that affect their immune system.”

Antibody testing requires a blood sample. VCU Health’s Laboratory Services team will analyze the sample to determine whether you have at some point been infected.

How can I get antibody testing at VCU Health?

Through the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, VCU Health will offer antibody testing to all eligible participants who have a previously scheduled appointment. You don’t need to do anything differently when scheduling your appointment. When you come in for your visit, your provider may ask if you’d like to participate. If you choose to do so, you will complete a brief survey to determine your eligibility for the study. If you are eligible, you will answer a few questions before providing a blood sample.

If you want an antibody test because you believe you may have been infected with COVID-19 two or more weeks ago and you do not need medical treatment for suspected or confirmed COVID-19, you can schedule an antibody test with your health care provider. If you believe you have an active COVID-19 infection, contact your health care provider for next steps.

Am I eligible?

To be eligible for the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, you must be a Virginia resident and at least 18 years old. Only one person per household can be tested. Regional enrollment totals have been preset by the VDH. Once these enrollment totals are met, no more participants will be accepted. However, you can still request an antibody test from your health care provider.

If you have developed symptoms of COVID-19 within the last 14 days, your body probably hasn’t had time to produce enough antibodies to show up on an antibody test. If you have recently developed symptoms, you should seek a nasal swab test, consult with your doctor about your care needs related to COVID-19 and wait at least two weeks from your first symptom before getting an antibody test.

Where can I get an antibody test at VCU Health?

To be tested in the Central Virginia region for the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, you must meet the eligibility criteria and have a scheduled appointment at one of our VCU Health MCV campus or Stony Point campus locations.

If you suspect you’ve had COVID-19 and would like antibody testing, even if you aren’t eligible for the serology project, contact your VCU Health provider to make sure antibody testing is available at that office.

What can you expect at your visit? Find out more about the ways VCU Health is ensuring your safety.

How and when can I get my test results?

If you participate in the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, you can opt in to receive your test results. The results should arrive by mail within two to four weeks.

If you request an appointment for antibody testing at VCU Health outside of the statewide project, you can receive your results as early as one business day after your appointment. You can access your results through the My VCU Health Patient Portal.

What do my antibody test results mean?

A positive test result means you’ve developed an antibody response to COVID-19. You’ve probably had COVID-19, even if you didn’t have any symptoms. This doesn’t mean you’re immune from future COVID-19 infection, though.

A negative test result means antibodies were not detected in your blood. You probably haven’t had COVID-19 — unless you were infected within the past two weeks. It generally takes at least two weeks for an antibody response to appear in your blood test.

Please note that there are instances in which your test results can be misleading:

Even if you’ve been infected with COVID-19, your antibody test result could be negative because at the time of the test, your body hadn’t yet produced antibodies. This is called a “false negative.”

You could have a “false positive” result, which means your antibody test result was positive, but you didn’t have any antibodies at the time of your test.

Regardless of your antibody test results, continue to follow safe social distancing protocols and wear a mask in public indoor settings. If you have questions about your test results, talk to your doctor.