By Richard Craver Lee Newspapers | Apr 15, 2020 |

State Republican legislative leaders say they are working to make sure North Carolinians are randomly tested for coronavirus.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, announced Monday the legislature is providing $100,000 to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center toward paying for 1,000 antibody kits. The kits, which began being placed in the mail Monday, are the key part of a study aimed at reaching a representative sample of the population. The legislative leaders said the study “will provide data to help legislators make decisions in the coming weeks.”

Berger said the funding comes from the discretionary account that is used to pay for legislative operations and business. Researchers have identified early study participants through Wake Forest Baptist’s patient platform.

“This study should rapidly allow us to define the epidemic on a regional basis and establish the framework to both track the disease in real time and answer critical secondary research questions,” said Dr. John Sanders, principal investigator of the study and chief of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist.

All data will be shared in real time with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and state and local public health departments.

Participating in creating and implementing the Wake Forest Baptist study are Atrium Health of Charlotte, Oracle, Scanwell Health, Javara of Winston-Salem and MedStar Health of Maryland.

Researchers will provide participants with at-home test kits every month for one year to track the virus and population immunity over time. Participants in a subset of the main study will use an at-home test kit to prick their fingers, and the test will use a drop of blood to identify whether it contains COVID-19 antibodies.

If antibodies are present, it would signal with a high probability that the person already has had the virus.

The 1,000 test kits are provided by Scanwell Health, a Los Angeles-based digital health company focused on smartphone-enabled, at-home diagnostics.

Antibodies can generally be detected in a person’s blood 14 days after the start of symptoms, which means the data collected through this study will be a lagging indicator of the virus’s prevalence in the population.

Providing answers?

For weeks, Berger has called for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials to conduct 1,000 random coronavirus tests as a gauge for measuring potential community spread of the virus.

He cited planned random testing in Florida and Ohio, as well as comments made by public health researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities.

“Government leaders are making decisions without the benefit of relevant and obtainable data,” Berger said in a statement.

On Monday, Berger said “this groundbreaking Wake Forest Baptist Health study … will fill a critical data gap that’s been missing for many weeks, and will help us learn if the true situation is better or worse than the models project.”

“Nobody knows the true hospitalization and fatality rates for this virus, even as the government has ordered a full-scale economic shutdown.”

On April 6, public health researchers at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill said that while random testing could prove helpful, it should remain a back-burner proposal for now.

Cooper’s executive order for stay-at-home restrictions expires April 29.

“I’m grateful to the North Carolina legislature for providing us with up-front funding so we can begin this critical project,” Sanders said.

The solution for balancing COVID-19 social distancing with social liberties could be widespread testing and surveillance, according to a brief posted Thursday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Mark Hall, a law and public-health professor at Wake Forest University, is co-author of the brief.

Hall said the basic point of the brief “is that, in order to sensibly lift current restrictions, we need a lot more testing.”

“Both of who has the virus and who has had it, in order to replace blanket restrictions with more targeted protections in a way that balances civil liberties with public health.”

Hall and co-author David Studdert, with Stanford University Schools of Law and Medicine, caution that lifting restrictions on social movement and the economy is not likely to be a one-time event.

“Disease prevalence will spike and abate,” they said. “There is emerging consensus that a graduated approach to restrictive measures will be needed — one that permits a return to some social and economic activity, while avoiding undue stress on medical resources and allowing population immunity to build gradually.”