The Department of State Health Services is now providing coronavirus mouth swab tests and personnel needed to administer them at all COVID-19 test sites run by the City of San Antonio. The services are funded with coronavirus relief money the State received from the federal government. 

Before the collaboration with the State on testing, the City of San Antonio was using its own coronavirus relief funding to purchase tests and used staff from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health Department to run the test sites, which included administering tests, tracking data, and manning the COVID-19 hotline. 

The State now provides the tests and services for free to Bexar County, which frees up local coronavirus relief funding for other eligible uses including paying public safety and health personnel, purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE), recovery and resilience planning, and providing food delivery to vulnerable populations, said Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of Metro Health. 

The State and the San Antonio Fire Department are now responsible for administering the new PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which detects the DNA of the coronavirus, created by the California-based diagnostic startup Curative, Bridger said, which uses saliva instead of using the nasopharyngeal swab. 

The Curative test calls for the person being tested to cough a few times to produce sputum, a mixture of saliva and mucus from the respiratory tract, before rubbing the swab inside both cheeks, on the upper and lower gums, on top of and underneath the tongue, and on the roof of the mouth. 

Because the tests don’t require assistance, less personnel are needed to administer tests. They can also be done at a quicker pace, and “they are certainly less invasive” than the nasal swabs being used previously, SAFD spokesperson Woody Woodward said, and results are typically returned within 72 hours. 

Jordan Skruhak went to the Freeman Coliseum for a COVID-19 test on Thursday and “was in and out in less than 10 minutes.”

“I had to administer the test myself, which I wasn’t expecting when I came, but it was a really simple process,” Skruhak said. “I have heard horror stories of the nose swab, which I was expecting, so it was a welcome surprise to not have to do that.”

In mid-April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval for a saliva-based test in an attempt to meet demand for testing throughout the U.S.. 

The oral fluid test has a 10 percent false-negative rate, according to Curative’s own non-peer-reviewed studies, and has been demonstrated in clinical studies to have equivalent sensitivity to nasopharyngeal swabs. 

While PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are considered the “gold standard,” the viral protein-detecting antigen tests are also accurate despite changes in reporting at the state level, said Dr. Junda Woo, Metro Health’s medical director.

On Wednesday, the DSHS made changes to its reporting to not include antigen test results in the number of people testing positive because only three counties were providing data for antigen tests, Bridger said, and 3,484 reported positives were removed from Bexar County’s case count without informing officials in advance. 

The reason the agency later gave made sense, Bridger said. The data would look inconsistent with so few counties reporting positives from antigen tests, she said.

“But we are trying to do as much testing as we can to get an accurate picture of COVID-19 in the community,” she said.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

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