Vail Health has scant testing for COVID-19 antibodies

This article was first printed in the Vail Daily on April 17, 2020 by Scott Miller.

It would be nice to know how many healthy people in the Vail Valley are carrying antibodies for the COVID-19 virus. We don’t have that information yet.

The presence of antibodies indicates some level of immunity to specific viruses and other diseases. That’s probably true with COVID-19, but like so much else about that virus, that information is still incomplete.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many COVID-19 antibody tests available.

Stephanie Kearney is vice president of ambulatory and outpatient services at Vail Health. In that job, Kearney is in charge of Vail Health’s laboratory.

Kearney said an antibody test for COVID-19 would be “a wonderful addition” to health officials’ tool kits.

“We could figure out who might have the immunity … and be ready to migrate back into the workforce,” Kearney said.

There are a couple of problems, though.

First is the lack of test kits. The second is that “not all tests are created equal,” Kearney said. Some of the available tests might pick up antibodies for other strains of coronavirus but not COVID-19.

The other problem is what’s been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Brooks Bock, CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, now an affiliate of Vail Health, said Wednesday that only three companies in the U.S. have federal authorization to conduct antibody testing.

“We have none of them in Eagle County,” Bock said. Local health officials have reached out to Cellex, the first company approved for COVID-19 antibody testing. The reply, so far, has been “we’ll let you know” when tests might be available, Bock said.

Chris Lindley is coordinating Vail Health’s response to COVID-19. Lindley said at the moment the only tests available are to determine whether or not a patient has the virus.

Lindley said “our phones are ringing off the hook” asking for tests. At this point, he added, testing is available.

“The testing we have in place… has been very aggressive,” Lindley said, adding that tests are available seven days a week at eight locations operated by Vail Health and/or Colorado Mountain Medical.

While other communities have essentially stopped testing, “We don’t turn anybody away,” Lindley said. Test kits are also going out into the valley’s low-income neighborhoods with the MIRA bus.

And, after a period in which the lab company Vail Health uses had delays in returning results, Lindley said results now can come back in 24 to 48 hours.

Kearney said the Vail Health emergency department has rapid testing that can return results in as little as 45 minutes.

Those tests are generally distributed to hard-hit areas, which included Eagle County.

Lindley added that the current system can handle up to 150 tests per day. “We’re not seeing that demand right now,” he said, adding that there’s currently more testing capacity than there is demand.

In fact, Eagle County now leads the nation in the number of tests given per capita.

A limited response
But knowing someone is infected can trigger only a limited response right now.

“We don’t have any specific treatment for COVID-19, nor is any on the immediate horizon,” Bock said, adding that an effective vaccine is probably 12 to 18 months away.

That leaves testing and isolating patients who test positive. That’s also why we’re being told to practice social distancing and wear face coverings when out in public.

The social distancing and face-covering rules will probably stay with us for some time.

Until a vaccine is developed, Lindley said COVID-19 will probably “circulate for years … We need to learn to live with it safely” until treatments and vaccines are available.

And, while the medical community has learned a lot about COVID-19 in a short time, much is still unknown. That includes the effectiveness of healthy people who carry the COVID-19 antibody in their blood.

“This is a novel virus,” Lindley said. “We have no idea how long (antibody) immunity will last… (there are) people who could potentially get it again.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.