Primary Urgent Care tested about 1,200 patients for coronavirus antibodies in its Herkimer and Utica offices last week during its first nearly five days of testing, Administrator Daniel Trevisani said.
"We really didn’t advertise it, but it was on the news," he said. "People are finding out by either social media or word-of-mouth. Most people are just curious. To me, it’s just a curiosity thing. They just want to know."
Public health officials have talked a lot about how testing, both to diagnose COVID-19 and to look for coronavirus antibodies, as key to learning about the virus and safely reopening businesses.
Until recently, though, supply shortages meant that the only testing done locally was diagnostic testing at hospitals for patients who were hospitalized, patients at high risk for serious illnesses and health care workers.
But new testing sites, for both diagnostic and antibody testing, keep opening and offering testing to more people.
On Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state has conducted 15,000 antibody tests, up for 3,000 conducted during a three-day period last month.
One in five New York City residents tested positive for the virus antibody, ranging from a high of 27.6% in the Bronx to 18.4% in Queens, the results showed.
Across the state, 12.3% were positive for the COVID-19 anitibody, ranging from 13.8% in Westchester and Rockland counties to 6% in western New York to 1.2% in the North Country.
The results statewide is down from an average of 14.9% when the first batch of results were released March 22, Cuomo said.
"As you can see, we test about every 4 or 5 days," Cuomo said. "We have so much at stake, so many decisions that we have to make that we want to get those data points as quickly as we can."
The state gave independent pharmacists permission April 25, although final details are still being worked out, to offer both antibody and diagnostic testing.
Here’s what you need to know about the different kinds of testing.
Diagnostic testing in New York
Diagnostic COVID-19 testing tells patients whether they have the illness known as COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus.
A specimen is collected using a nasal swab (self-administered at drive-thru testing sites) and then examined in a lab.
"It says: Do you have the virus right now in your body?" said Dr. Kent Hall, chief physician executive for the Mohawk Valley Health System.
The test searches for a specific protein of the virus and has to be very accurate to make sure it targets the right coronavirus, not one, for example, that simply causes the common cold, Hall said.
"What this test tell us is if you have the virus in your body," he said. "That tells us two things. Number one, if you have it in our body, then you shed it. You can talk, you can sneeze, you can cough; it can go out into the environment."
That means you can spread the illness, he said. And if the patient has symptoms, it tells doctors that those symptoms are (probably, unless the patient has two simultaneous infections) because of the disease, he said.
"The only reason you would need to be tested is to know whether you need to be quarantined from other people," Hall said.
There are no approved treatments for COVID-19, only treatments for individual symptoms.
How is antibody testing done and what does it show?
Antibody testing, done through either a blood draw or pinprick, checks to see if a person has been exposed to the coronavirus.
"An antibody is a protein that your body makes to help it fight off infections," Hall said. "The antibody attaches to the virus or bacteria, in this case, the virus, (and) basically acts like a magnet so that white blood cells, lympohcytes, can attach to the virus cell, in this case, and kill it.
"So for your body to be able to do that in any kind of efficient and effective way, your body needs to make antibodies."
In general, antibody tests matter because they provide information on whether a person has immunity to an infection.
Can you have a coronavirus immunity?
With most viruses, the presence of antibodies would mean that a person has some degree of immunity for a period of time, he said.
The problem, though, is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, Hall said.
"We don’t know if the (antibody) IgG that is made is effective enough to keep you from getting sick," he said.
"It may. It may not keep you from getting entirely sick, but you may get a much milder disease. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is that it will keep you from getting sick, but it will only hang around for a short period of time."
In other words, no one knows yet whether people with COVID-19 antibodies could get COVID-19 anyway or, if they do have some protection, how long it will last.
So that means a positive antibody test is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, Ellis emphasized.
"We don’t want you to have a false security," she said, "that if you had an antibody test and they said you have the antibodies, that doesn’t mean that you’re safe."
Wearing a mask, observing social distancing and other precautions are still necessary, she said.
Antibody tests don’t provide much useful information to individuals, Hall said.
"Does that mean I can go around not wearing a mask, going to restaurants and going to ballgames and I’m going to be protected?" he asked.
"I don’t know. Nobody can answer that question right now."
What are experts looking for in antibody testing?
Antibody testing tells public health officials how widespread COVID-19 has spread in different communities.
The higher the number, the more COVID-19 has spread in that community. The lower the number, the more people who could still catch it.
One of the first testing sites was in New Rochelle, which had the first coronavirus outbreak in New York in early March. After about 1,000 people there were quarantined, they were then tested for the antibody and to see if their plasma could treat other patients.
"Based on our knowledge of how the body reacts to an infection, we presume that the presence of IgG antibodies may mean that you have some level of immunity to a virus," said Jonah Bruno, spokesman state Department of Health.
"However, at this time, it is unclear whether the presence of SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the novel coronavirus) IgG antibodies will result in immunity to prevent future COVID-19 infections."
That's why testing is so important, he said.
"We will better understand immunity to SARS-CoV-2 as we study what happens to people who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibodies and are again exposed to SARS-CoV-2, to determine if any of them are confirmed to have new infections."
The state is requiring all labs to report antibody test results; it will collect the data and release it to the public, he said.
"People would like to know just for their own peace of mind," said Dr. Arthur Fougner, a downstate OB/GYN and president of the Medical Society of New York State.
"And the scientists would like to know because it’s early on in the disease. We don’t know much about this disease. We need to know more."
On Saturday, Cuomo said the state will ask hospitals to provide more data on COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are still averaging between 900 and 1,000 a day.
The state will be collecting residence, age, gender, race, underlying conditions, occupation, commuting method and other data to determine patterns in the newly infected and other clues on how new cases are generated.
"So if you find a specific place or pattern that is generating infections then you can attack it but you have to find it first," Cuomo said. " and that's what we're looking at, especially on this number of new infections that are coming."
Reporter H. Rose Schneider contributed to this report.