Here’s a question from a reader:
As businesses reopen and schools remain closed, families are turning to grandparents for child care. Many grandparents are understandably nervous and want to get tested before helping with the kids. Some want an antibody test, while others want a test for the virus.
What kind of test, if any, do grandparents need? How do you get tested without symptoms or a physician referral? And can you even trust the results?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
Diagnostic tests tell if you’re currently infected with the coronavirus. So, for grandparents, diagnostic testing would be most helpful if administered to their grandchildren; a negative result would provide some reassurance.
Right now, though, diagnostic testing is not generally available to those without symptoms. And the method that’s currently most widespread and accurate is quite uncomfortable, requiring the insertion of a long swab deep into the nasal cavity. In other words, it’s not something most grandchildren would enjoy.
That test only provides a snapshot of a moment in time, which is fine in a shelter-in-place world. But with things opening up, knowing that kids are virus-free today (or, with delays in reporting, several days ago) doesn’t guarantee they’ll be virus-free tomorrow.
Antibody testing, on the other hand, is not so time-sensitive. Also known as serology tests, they tell whether you’ve previously been exposed to the virus. So, grandparents themselves would take these tests.
The assumption behind antibody testing is that viral exposure translates into resistance against reinfection. However, with this novel coronavirus, we don’t yet know this is the case – or the duration or strength of such potential protection.
Antibody testing doesn’t require symptoms; in fact, you can’t test unless you’re symptom-free. Still, to my knowledge, you do need a physician referral at this time.
Unfortunately, a recent study showed that few of the currently available antibody tests yield reliable results. Particularly troubling were false positives, which can give a mistaken belief of immunity to the virus.
Right now, I wouldn’t recommend either testing strategy. I know it’s hard, but given the threat the virus poses, social distancing – even from grandchildren – represents the safest approach for older people.