Christus Health is offering a new rapid screening tool that will help identify asymptomatic COVID-19 patients and those who carry antibodies that combat the disease to ensure necessary medical procedures can be performed safely.

Hospital system officials on Tuesday said 20,000 antibody testing kits have been distributed to Christus facilities throughout the U.S. which includes 42 Christus facilities in Bexar County, including primary care, emergency, pediatric, and urgent care facilities.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in-house antibody testing for caregivers, patients, and employees to help determine the safety of performing necessary medical procedures patients might be avoiding due to fears of contracting the novel coronavirus at a health care facility, said Dr. Sam Bagchi, executive vice president and chief clinical officer with Christus.

The test is not available for the general public.

“Rapid antibody testing will be important to really understand where the virus is in our communities and in our facilities,” Bagchi said. “Antibody testing is going to be critical to get back into non-COVID-19 [related] healthcare.”

The test uses a finger-prick blood sample which, within 10-minutes, can confirm whether the blood has two COVID-19 antibodies, immunoglobulins M and G.

Bagchi said the test is useful for people who have no symptoms because the antibodies that present in the test can tell whether the person is having an early immune response or whether the person has had the infection for a longer period of time, depending on how robust the response is.  

Christus Vice President of Clinical Ancillary Services Dave Benner said that while “no diagnostic test for COVID-19 is perfect,” internal validation tests were found to be 99 percent positive in determining whether a person contracted the novel coronavirus.

If the test kit showed a positive for COVID-19 antibodies, the patient would be cross-tested with the nasal swab to confirm the positive diagnosis, Benner said. “Having that knowledge is powerful when it comes to providing health care services not related to COVID-19.”

Christus has already begun antibody testing on corporate office employees in the Dallas area, but officials said the test kits will most likely be used for patients who enter the emergency room and need to be hospitalized or people in need of a surgical procedure. The hospital system is hoping to expand it to open testing availability to pregnant women and potentially exposed patients with FDA approval.

“It’s helping us to tell people that our facilities are COVID-19-free, so people don’t have to worry about coming in for a procedure related to coronary heart disease or cancer,” Benner said. “We have to build confidence in the community because the concern is very high and people are avoiding necessary health care services.”

Eventually, Bagchi said, Christus is hoping to expand testing access to employers throughout the U.S. who are given the go-ahead to open back up once the pandemic dies down.

“We think this testing will be part of the [equation] when it comes to opening back up health care facilities and other parts of our community and economy over the next several months,” Bagchi said.

Christus has health care facilities throughout Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas, and abroad in Mexico, Columbia, and Chile. Currently, testing is available at all U.S.-based facilities.

Bagchi said the antibody testing will be particularly important “in the post-surge world projected over the next weeks and months.”

“Some people show no symptoms of this virus, some people show minimal, so it really can be impossible or hard to know if someone has been exposed to the virus,” Bagchi said, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommend testing for those who have symptoms due to test availability.

“We are really opening up the gates to provide testing for more individuals to inform them of their infection status.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.