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Clearing up some of the confusion over COVID19 tests

Let’s try to keep politics out of the public health discussion as much as we can. I know that’s hard in the current environment, but it’s crucial. Here are some facts that should inform every organization’s communications and business planning in the coming weeks.

Things to Consider graphic
(c) Artur / Adobe Stock

What’s important to know is that as of April 15, the FDA had given emergency clearance for 37 different tests to diagnose COVID19 infection. On Saturday, April 17, the FDA confirmed that serological tests to detect whether a person has antibodies to COVID19 (indicating prior exposure and potential immunity) may be used without FDA approval. In other words, if the manufacturer says the test works, they can start selling and using the tests. Four such tests have obtained Emergency Use Authorizations, even though that step is not being required. 

Both types of tests are essential. Diagnostic tests are needed to identify who currently has a COVID19 infection and might be contagious. As treatment options emerge, these tests will also be important so that tests are given to patients who most need them. Antibody or serology tests will inform us how many people in our communities have been exposed to the COVID19 virus, among other details. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Sunday that the state is immediately starting a large study of randomly selected New Yorkers to estimate the statewide prevalence of COVID19 infection.

The challenge is that when any of these tests are done without a national standard, comparing results from one place to another becomes virtually impossible. Anyone who remembers the challenges involved with developing reliable tests to detect HIV knows the importance of consistent, reliable tests. We are already seeing results from other countries that are not holding up to further scrutiny, strongly suggesting that some of the tests that were used are unreliable. In the United Kingdom, government officials paid millions for antibody tests that turned out to be ineffective.

We need tests quickly, but we need accurate information in order to decide the best actions — whether those decisions are for public health or safety, business planning or our own individual benefit. Absent a national standard, health officials will have considerable difficulty making decisions for their own populations because they may not have good information from surrounding areas.

For business communicators, if your “return to work” plans include any kind of testing, be prepared to provide enough detail about how you have selected your tests, how they are being processed, and what the results are going to be used for.

Best practices include determining your metrics for “reopening” in advance so that you are not making decisions ad hoc. Among the questions to consider:

  1. What rate of infection in your community will be the trigger for your operations resuming? 
  2. If business resumes and the infection rate in the community goes back up, what will you do? 
  3. What are your procedures for keeping potentially infected individuals from your workplaces? If you are going to do temperature checks, how will those be conducted? What will be done to assure that every individual entering a facility is checked? 
  4. If your business resumes and one of your employees develops COVID19, what is your protocol?

For more articles like this, visit or find me on LinkedIn. To purchase The Communications Handbook for Coronavirus, visit your favorite bookseller’s website or The ebook version is also available directly from Public Safety Press.