Federal health officials announced Monday that they planned to ship 1.82 million rapid COVID-19 tests to Maryland to help keep tabs on the pandemic as cases creep up around the state.
More than 530,000 Abbott BinaxNOW tests already have been sent to the state, including 136,000 that went directly to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and historically black colleges and universities, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Larry Hogan will decide where to send the rest, but they are supposed to support testing of students, teachers, first responders and others supporting critical infrastructure.
“To facilitate the continued re-opening of Maryland schools, businesses and economy, the Trump Administration has prioritized scaling up the state’s point of care testing capacity by making this $760 million national investment in BinaxNOW tests,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir, in the statement.
The rapid tests, also called antigen tests, can be performed in as little as 15 minutes, making them ideal for use in congregate living situations or when an outbreak is suspected. Independently, they are being more widely rolled out in point-of-care settings such as doctors' offices for use when people have symptoms.
Public health experts say the drawback is they are less accurate than the slower molecular, or PCR, tests performed by labs on samples taken at public testing sites around the state. They can be especially inaccurate on asymptomatic people and are not recommended for people who need a definitive results to go to work such as health and emergency workers.
Experts also recommend that people who receive a negative result follow up with a PCR test if they have symptoms or were exposed to someone with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The testing unknowns have the state taking a cautious approach, said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan.
“To date, we have received about 15% of what was announced, but these are relatively new screening tests which require both staff training and field validation,” he said in an email response. “As part of that process, we are conducting a limited rollout pairing the BinaxNOW and PCR testing to ensure that a) the BinaxNOW is used as part of a predetermined screening test plan and b) that BinaxNOW performs effectively in the field for screening.”
Ricci said state officials were contacting potential sites throughout the state, including work places, schools, long-term care facilities and HBCUs. He said officials would “then evaluate next steps and the best uses for these tests based on initial results.”
Hogan has recently sought more of the rapid tests to keep tabs on the pandemic, with the governor entering into a multi-state pact to increase buying power. Hogan announced last month that he would use a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to buy 250,000 antigen tests made by Becton, Dickinson and Co.
Those tests already are being deployed in nursing homes and congregate settings to supplement other diagnostic testing, Ricci said.
Results from the rapid tests are reported to state and local health officials, though they have not yet said how they plan to publicly account for them. Results from PCR, or molecular, tests are tabulated daily on a state website, coronavirus.maryland.gov. There were nearly 3.3 million tests reported on Monday, with almost 141,000 positive since March.
The federal government began buying up the Abbott tests in late August, once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the BinaxNOW an emergency use authorization. Officials say they bought 150 million tests and have made initial distributions to every state.
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