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Health Team

UNC Health experts worry about availability of both flu, COVID tests

Posted September 23, 2020 11:25 a.m. EDT
Updated September 23, 2020 11:50 a.m. EDT

— As flu season approaches, UNC Health experts worry about the availability of tests for both the flu and the coronavirus.

Any person who visits a doctor with flu-like symptoms, will likely need to be tested for both the flu and the coronavirus, according to Melissa Miller, the director of clinical microbiology and molecular microbiology laboratories for UNC Health Care. The only way to distinguish the coronavirus and the flu from each other is based off a test because of their similar symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Miller said she has serious concerns with the availability of tests as flu season begins.

"The supply chain continues to be a major issue, not just for COVID testing but for all testing," Miller said.

She said that shortages in the testing industry are prevalent during the pandemic.

"Every day it's a new fire," she said.

The Southern Hemisphere has already been through their flu season. Due to strict social distancing and mask-wearing, there was not an uptick in flu cases.

Miller is concerned that this will not be the case here in America.

"Will we have the tests that we need to do both flu testing and other respiratory testing as well as COVID testing?" Miller asked.

Asymptomatic testing

Miller pointed out that it is uncommon for people without symptoms to be tested for the flu. The guidance is different for the coronavirus. Anyone who has possibly been exposed to someone with the virus should be tested, according to the CDC.

"We definitely believe there is purpose testing asymptomatic people," Miller said. Especially people who have been in contact with those who have tested positive for COVID-19, she added.

But the symptomatic people being tested need to be prioritized, Miller said.

"I do not think that everybody needs to be tested," she said.

Those who should be prioritized are those who are at high risk or who work in high-risk situations. She gave the example of an employee who works in a nursing home.

Rapid antigen tests are not as effective as tests that are sent off to a lab, Miller said. Rapid tests miss about one-fifth of symptomatic individuals, according to Miller. It is not known how many symptomatic individuals are missed in this form of testing.

Antibody testing

Most people who are tested for antibodies test negative, according to Miller. She said that those tests serve "minimal" value right now because so few of them are coming back positive.

A positive antibody test does not give someone "a license" to not distance and not wear a mask, Miller said.

The benefit of antibody testing is that those who do have a positive antibody test could potentially be a plasma donor.

Miller recommended those who tested positive for antibodies still get vaccinated for coronavirus once a vaccine was available.

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