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Features & Columns

New Coronavirus Test Lets Patients Swab Themselves, Protecting Hospital Staff

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New Coronavirus Test Lets Patients Swab Themselves, Protecting Hospital Staff

2020-03-26 22:37:48

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Swab (Image source: Public domain)

Because we need at least some good news with the coronavirus pandemic happening around us, UnitedHealth Group Inc. has developed a test for the virus that patients can administer themselves. This reduces the risk of them potentially infecting health-care workers. 

With most of the current tests being used, nurses and other staff have to use a swab and stick it up people's noses and to the back of their throats to get a sample. This potentially exposes them if the patient sneezes or coughs, according to Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, who led the research team.

He's the director of infectious diseases at UnitedHealth's Everett Clinic in the Seattle area. The Food and Drug Administration included this new testing in guidance for the country's medical workers. A UnitedHealth clinic in the Seattle area started using it the day the FDA added it to its guidance, Monday. 

Using this new method, a swab can be administered by the patient in the front of the nose. They can then drop it into a test tube and hand it over to a health professional. The patient can even do it from a vehicle, further protecting health-care workers and possibly speeding up the rate patients are tested.

"This is groundbreaking because it will radically change how the samples are obtained and make the health-care worker much safer," said Tu. 

UnitedHealth's new method is just one of several that health companies have introduced. Drive-through testing was one of the new methods, as well as a regimen from Cepheid, a California company, that gives health-care providers results in just 45 minutes.

Chief scientific officer, Ken Ehlert, of UnitedHealth, said the new protocol will be put to use as quickly as possible at the company's OptumCare network that includes more than 48,000 physicians. 

While a doctor not involved in the study did find it promising, he also warned it won't be as accurate. "You're going to miss diagnosing COVID-19 in some people because they will inadequately swab themselves," said Assistant Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine Dr. Michael McCullough at the University of California, San Francisco campus in Fresno, California.

"But if you use a much simpler test which is a little less perfect, you can test exponentially more people and catch more of the disease." 

UnitedHealth officials spoke of a study that proved the accuracy of the new test, noting it accurately detected COVID-19 in more than 90 percent of patients that were confirmed as infected. This result was consistent with the test that a health-care professional administered. 500 patients were involved in the study at UnitedHealth's OptumCare facilities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation assisted with the research, as did others.

Dr. Tu said he first thought of this new way to administer the test two weeks ago when Everett's clinics were flooded with patients complaining of COVID-19 symptoms. The clinic was running out of protective gear for the staff. "I said the only way we can get out of this situation is to change the way we collect specimens," reported Tu. 

Tu, along with other experts from UnitedHealth and other organizations, conducted a weeklong study. Nurses and other workers found they could use less protective gear to collect the samples in the test tubes. The team reported its findings to the FDA on Sunday, leading to the agency updating the guidance for COVID-19 testing the following day.

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