First in a series on implications of antibody testing. Next: Donating convalescent plasma.

Wondering whether that nasty bug you had this winter was actually COVID-19? For many who have had mild illnesses in recent months but weren’t tested, antibody tests could offer an answer. 

Now becoming more widely available in El Paso, antibody tests may yield useful information for determining the extent of coronavirus community spread. 

Nurse Sophia Garcia draws blood from René Kladzyk for a COVID-19 antibody test. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

In early March I went to New York City for the weekend to play a concert (Remember those? Ah, the halcyon days of group gatherings). The day after I got back to El Paso, I started to have some mild cold symptoms, including a persistent sore throat and dry cough. I then found out that a number of people at the concert with me had tested positive for COVID-19. 

My sickness was never severe, and I didn’t qualify for coronavirus testing at the time. Instead, I self-quarantined for two weeks, and got over my bug fairly quickly. 

Now, like so many others, I find myself with persistent questions in the back of my mind — did I already have it? If I did, what does that mean? Does it mean I can’t get it again? Does it mean that I can move freely through the world, invincible and unfettered by fear of virus contraction?

The answers to my latter questions are decidedly uncertain, but that first question, whether or not I had it? That question can be answered with an antibody test.  

Antibody testing arrives in El Paso

A couple days ago, the El Paso Department of Public Health announced that it would begin offering antibody testing to El Pasoans, rolling out testing in phases, beginning with first responders and health-care workers who have COVID-19 exposure risk connected to their profession. 

“Antibody testing in El Paso will give us info that is valuable in determining how prevalent the virus is in the community and how many susceptible individuals remain; and that will help us continue future planning for a sustained response awaiting a second wave,” city-County health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said. 

Ocaranza did not specify when or to what extent antibody testing would be made available to the general public, but local efforts to implement antibody testing have been increasing around the country in recent weeks.

With new research indicating that COVID-19 had spread much earlier than was previously thought in many U.S. metropolitan areas, the extent of community spread is likely far greater than existing testing data suggests. And places that have already implemented antibody testing have borne this out.

Randomized antibody testing in New York City in April suggested that one in five New Yorkers may have already had COVID-19, indicating that virus spread had been taking place throughout the metropolis far earlier than was initially thought. 

Although the first confirmed positive COVID-19 case in El Paso was identified on March 13, situations like mine (where I had confirmed exposure to COVID-19 before returning to El Paso on March 9) imply a situation where El Paso community spread of the virus could have started earlier in March, or even in February. 

Getting tested

Antibody testing is beginning to be made available in El Paso at local clinics, including Upper Valley Urgent Care Center. 

Norma Carpenter, a nurse at Upper Valley Urgent Care Center, says that they’ve been administering antibody tests provided by Quest Diagnostics for about two to three weeks, and that their tests are 99.6% accurate (according to information provided by a Quest representative.) 

These tests are only effective when used on people who have been symptom-free for 10 days, so false negatives are possible in people if they contracted COVID-19 more recently. Since I’ve been blissfully symptom-free for almost two months now, hidden away in my El Paso quarantine cave, I decided I was a great candidate for antibody testing, and headed over to Upper Valley Urgent Care Center on Saturday afternoon to take the test. 

Going to a medical facility of any kind is a stressful activity during a pandemic, given the possible risk of exposure, and I felt some amount of anxiety making the trip. However, I determined the usefulness of knowing whether myself and my family may already have had COVID-19 was worth it. 

The clinic was mellow and nearly empty when I arrived. I sat for around 15 minutes in the waiting room, soundtracked only by the low murmur of a reality TV show where Adam Sandler and Chris Rock laughed while practicing archery. 

A man came into the clinic while I was waiting and he too requested an antibody test. He asked if it’d be possible for him to wait outside until they were ready to administer the test. They said no, but there was plenty of room within the waiting area to keep our distance. 

The actual test lasted only a couple minutes. After taking my vitals, Sophia Garcia, a nurse in a surgical mask, efficiently drew a small vial of blood from my arm: “Take a deep breath, big poke!” And that was it. 

I was told I’ll receive a bill in the mail soon, and that most major insurance companies cover the test, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, and more. 

What antibody presence means

Testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies does not necessarily mean that a person is immune to COVID-19, or couldn’t contract it again. The World Health Organization has warned that, as of right now, the idea that one-time infection with COVID-19 is linked to immunity is unproven. 

“The information that’s been given to us is that you’re somewhat protected from getting sick and also from giving it to someone else (if you test positive for COVID-19 antibodies),” Carpenter said. “But I think until further studies are done, we will not know for sure. We don’t know if the antibodies are temporary or if, like other diseases, they last a lifetime. And things are changing so fast in terms of information that’s out there.”

For me, I should have my antibody test results in two to three days, and while I won’t know for certain what this means in terms of protective immunity, I will at least know whether I had it. And, more importantly, if I test positive, I’ll be able to donate convalescent plasma to other sick community members who could benefit from the rejuvenating properties of COVID-19 antibodies.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.