Starr County health authority addresses concerns over COVID-19 antibody tests

After a handful of Starr County employees tested positive for antibodies of COVID-19, Starr County Health Authority Dr. Jose Vazquez, tried to assuage concerns within the community by explaining what those antibody tests actually meant.

Vazquez held a virtual news conference Saturday to update the public about how many employees throughout the county had been tested for antibodies, what those results were and to explain that those results were no reason to panic.

“A lot of the rumors that have been circulating in our community are basically because of the lack of understanding from the people on the meaning of a positive antibody test,” Vazquez said. “We need to emphasize a positive antibody test does not mean the person is infected so there’s no need to go closing businesses or changing school activities or business activities because somebody linked or related to that community has been positive in antibody testing.”

Earlier this month, the employees of the Starr County Memorial Hospital were the first in the county to be tested through the rapid tests for antibodies.

Vazquez said they tested 260 hospital employees and, of those, 28 employees were positive for the antibodies.

Among county employees, 238 were tested and five of those were positive for antibodies. Additionally, another 112 county employees were expected to be tested this week.

The county and hospital employees who tested positive, Vazquez added, were then tested for COVID-19 through an RT-PCR, or swab, test.

“The RT-PCR has been negative for all the hospital employees,” he said. “For the county employees, it is still too soon. We are still pending for those swab tests but out of the 28 from the hospital, 28 were negative for RT-PCR.”

Vazquez explained that testing positive for the antibodies just means that the individual has been exposed and thus developed an immune response against the virus.

He added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now classify these cases as “a probable case.”

That classification means the case warrants further investigation which includes steps to be taken by that patient’s primary care physician or healthcare provider, which includes an epidemiological evaluation.

A doctor will interview the patient and ask about symptoms and ask the patient to continue monitoring for such symptoms — fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, allergy symptoms, rash, changes in taste or smell senses.

“If the doctor or the healthcare provider thinks that there is a (next) step to be taken, that will be the RT-PCR,” Vazquez said.

He urged the public to continue taking safety precautions — social distancing, using masks, avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more and avoiding crowded spaces — but added that antibody testing needed to continue as it would be fundamental returning to a more or less normal life.

Employees of Rio Grande City and the Starr County Appraisal District are expected to be tested this week, according to Vazquez who on Tuesday confirmed that employees of a supermarket in the area were also tested for the antibodies.

“The more we test, the more positive results we are going to have,” he said, “so it is important the community understands that this is not a reason to be in panic, this is not a reason to be nervous, this is actually the opposite.”

A positive test result for antibodies means that person has been already exposed and has recovered out of the disease, he said.

“In order to secure the possibility of returning to a normal life, at some point, we will need to have a large amount of the population exposed and with antibodies,” Vazquez added, “that’s the only way that we will be able to control this disease.”