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EMS workers conduct antibody testing to see if they have been exposed to COVID-19

While, yes, the test can tell if someone has been exposed to COVID-19, at this point, it does not determine if that individual is immune to the virus.

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — EMS workers in Lancaster County are conducting antibody testing to find out if they have been exposed to COVID-19. With a snap of the gloves, Paramedic Carli Moua is ready to take blood from her colleagues at Lancaster EMS in East Lampeter Township.

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“Basically, this test says that, at some point, you've been exposed to the virus, and your body has developed antibodies to fight it off,” explained Moua.

Lancaster EMS is trying to find out how many of its 185 staff members have been exposed to COVID-19. While the test is not mandatory, Moua says many employees want to take part.

“Everyone has questions, and everybody wants to understand as much as they can about this virus and how how widespread it really is,” she said.

One milliliter of blood is all it takes. It spins in a machine for twenty minutes which separates the plasma and blood cells. Then, the vial will be sent out to Quest Diagnostics for testing. According to its website, results can come back within two days. 

Asymptomatic patients may be given an IgG antibody serology test via blood draw. The IgG antibody serology test is one tool that may help identify people who may have been previously exposed to or overcome SARS-CoV-2. It may indicate prior infection which may be resolved, as well as potential protection against re-infection ("protective immunity").

“In EMS, you're exposed to a lot of things and you're always careful, and you you put every precaution in place, but with this particular virus, there's so many patients who are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms so it's in the back of your head, 'have I been exposed or not and haven't known it,’” explained Moua.

While, again, yes, the test can tell if someone has been exposed to COVID-19, it does not determine if that person is immune to the virus. Moua and others say there just isn’t enough data, at this point, to say so.

“Sometimes you get immunity, meaning you won't catch the disease and sometimes not, and in this situation with COVID-19, we don't know if antibodies can provide protection for EMS providers,” said Dr. Michael Reihart, the medical director for Lancaster EMS.

Because it does not say if people are immune, some ask why do it?

“One - it’s an issue of curiosity and also to see, most importantly, the prevalence in the community and the prevalence with our EMS providers who truly heroically work on the front lines for weeks and weeks and with COVID positive patients,” added Reihart.

Down the line, could the results make a difference?

“I believe that it will,” stated Mou. “Again, I have to keep going back and saying that there's not enough known about the virus like to make any presumptions or or to make any plans based on these test results, but I do think it's going to impact future decisions.”

According to Quest's website, a positive result may suggest an immune response, but the role of antibodies in preventing the disease, again, is yet to be established. It reads, "[A test] may indicate prior infection which may be resolved, as well as potential protection against re-infection."

So far, 8 workers have been tested, according to Moua. She says testing will really ramp up beginning Monday. 

According to Quest, the test may be useful for people without symptoms, including healthcare workers. Knowing if they have been exposed gives people and their healthcare providers insight for a more informed decision about returning to work and activity.

It's important to know that antibody testing must be ordered by a physician. Patients may make an appointment at a Quest patient service center for this test. The test is not intended for diagnosis of an active COVID-19 case.