Antibody testing begins on the Big Island

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Cars are in line for COVID-19 testing at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Individuals received a deep-nasal swab test as well as a blood test for antibodies.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Sgt. Cypriano looks at the next person in line for a COVID-19 serology test while wearing layers of personal protection equipment in Hilo on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Serology tests were administered to anyone that did not show symptoms of COVID-19.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Michael Lemons looks out the window while taking a deep-nasal swab COVID-19 test Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The deep-nasal swab tests individuals for current COVID-19 infection.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Dee Mishioka labels a blood sample while testing for COVID-19 antibodies using a serology test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. An antibody test looks for the presence of antibodies, which are specific proteins made in response to infections.

  • Sgt. Cypriano, center, ties off Battalion Chief Matthias Kush’s arm for a COVID-19 serology test Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo on Wednesday. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Drive-through testing for COVID-19 antibodies, which started last week on the Big Island, is apparently the first of its kind available in Hawaii.

The presence of antibodies, or proteins that help fight off infections, can be detected with a simple blood test and can determine if an individual previously had COVID-19.

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Premier Medical Group and Hawaii County began the antibody testings at a COVID-19 drive-through screening and testing clinic Wednesday in Hilo. The antibody testing took place again Friday in Waimea.

Kaohimanu Dang Akiona, a physician with Premier Medical, said the antibody test is intended for those who had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, those with close contact with a positive case, and those at higher risk of being exposed, like first responders and other essential workers.

In the coming weeks, Akiona said the goal is to refine the testing and share the results with the larger medical community and state leadership.

“We all know it’s a good idea,” she said. “I want to give (people) a concrete example of how we did it. … I think it’s harder to ignore the utility of the test if we can show that we did it, that it’s possible.”

COVID-19 won’t just go away, said Akiona, who added much remains unknown about the nature of the disease. But antibody tests help officials know how many people have been exposed to the virus so far and is one of the tools that will help the state safely reopen.

Identifying those who test positive for the antibodies also might help in the development of future treatments.

According to Akiona, the antibody tests also are very accurate.

On Wednesday, 38 tests were performed, and although all the results weren’t available, no positive results had been detected by noon Friday, she said.

“We just need to show people it can be done and hope more people can join us and help,” she said of the screening and testing efforts.

Additional COVID-19 screenings and tests, as well as the antibody tests, were conducted Saturday at Kamehameha Park in North Kohala. More will be done from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo.

There will be a $43 out-of-pocket cost to individuals whose medical insurance will not cover the antibody test.

The standard COVID-19 screening and testing, however, is free, but individuals must meet the criteria established by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s COVID-19 Response Task Force to be tested.

Clinicians on site will make the determination about who will be tested.

Those who visit the screening sites will be asked to show photo identification, and people should bring their own pens and health insurance cards.

“We’ve expanded pretty much around the entire island,” Garrett Kim, Hawaii Fire Department’s representative on the county’s COVID-19 task force, said of the drive-through testing clinics. “We were concerned we weren’t getting a good picture of what was really happening in our community.”

The drive-through testing sites are a collaboration between the county and other testing providers, including Premier Medical.

Akiona said the clinics have performed about 3,000 tests, but have screened close to 10,000 people since the first clinic was held in late March.

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“… We can’t fight it as a task force unless we know where it is,” Kim said. “This testing will give us insight where it is in our community so we can allocate our resources and mitigate any outbreaks as soon as possible.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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