North Carolina’s top Republican lawmaker, Sen. Phil Berger, is urging state health officials to begin random sample testing of a few hundred people for the coronavirus. Berger said the data could allow the state to reopen some businesses.
“What we know about the coronavirus at this point is for the most part based on tests of people who are symptomatic,” Berger said. “We have no accurate information about how many people there are in the population at large who have been exposed.”
Berger said random testing could show that Gov. Roy Cooper's Stay at Home order is warranted or that the state needs even stricter measures. But he said it may also show that the measures taken by state and local officials are too draconian, and uneccessarily causing too much pain in the economy.
“It may also be that we can take our foot off the gas pedal a little bit and allow restaurants to open in part," Berger said. "The fact is we just don’t know.”
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is “actively working with researchers in the state on plans to understand how many people have mild symptoms or no symptoms with COVID-19,” DHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight Connor said in a statement Friday.
In a typical coronavirus test, a doctor swabs a patient’s throat and nose to check whether the virus is currently present in their body.
Another study, called an antibody study, can determine whether a patient has ever had a specific virus by testing their blood for an antibody, or substance produced by the body’s immune system to fight a pathogen.
Berger said he wants to conduct both kinds of tests on a random sample of North Carolinians to better understand the outbreak.
But Chris Woods, a Duke University professor of medicine and global health said widespread swab tests would be difficult.
“Random sampling of an entire community when there’s ongoing community spread outside of the context of a study that has a very specific goal is probably not the greatest use of limited resources at the moment,” Woods said.
Hospitals and health care providers across North Carolina have limited testing capacity and currently reserve tests for patients who have symptoms or have been in direct contact with someone who tested positive.
Woods said scientists at Duke are collecting blood samples for an antibody study which he said could help develop a treatment for the virus in the future.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson agreed that the state does not have enough tests and protective equipment to spare for random sample coronavirus testing and said officials should not rush to reopen businesses.
“I can’t imagine any scenario in which we would get back data saying ‘It’s time to open things back up.’ Everyone agrees we haven’t even hit peak infection in North Carolina,” Jackson said.
As of Friday afternoon, Mecklenburg County had 564 positive coronavirus cases, according to state health department numbers. Berger’s home, Rockingham County, had three cases and one death.
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