L.A. launches rapid Covid-19 testing effort that could help first responders, schools

By Victoria Colliver 10/27/2020 07:46 PM EDT

Los Angeles city and county officials on Tuesday unveiled a rapid Covid-19 testing pilot project aimed at helping first responders and schoolchildren limit coronavirus spread.

The pilot will be conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California in conjunction with the city and county. It will make Los Angeles one of the first regions in the country to conduct a large-scale study on both symptomatic and asymptomatic residents using inexpensive antigen tests, which can produce results in minutes rather than days.

“This could be the game changer we’ve been waiting for, but we have to assess that,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday during a press event.

The details: Polymerase chain reaction tests have been considered the gold standard for coronavirus testing, but the swabs and other materials have been in short supply during much of the pandemic and results have often taken more than a week to come in.

Antigen tests, which rely on a nasal or throat swab, are considered less accurate. But the trade-off is that they’re easier to conduct, less expensive and can deliver results within 15 minutes. The antigen tests cost about $5 compared to upwards of $100 for a PCR test.

The pilot project is divided into two phases. Initially, local firefighters will be tested, and that data will be processed by artificial intelligence software. The researchers hope to enroll up to 1,000 first responders.

In the second phase, antigen tests will go to city and county Covid-19 testing sites and to schools once they reopen. Both phases will use volunteers as study participants.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and health care company Gauss provided the rapid antigen tests and computer vision technology to automatically interpret results.

The impact: Los Angeles County, with more than 10 million residents, has consistently been an epicenter of the epidemic in California. Los Angeles County, which remains in the most restrictive tier under the state’s color-coded reopening structure, crossed the grim milestones this week of more than 7,000 Covid deaths and 300,000 cases.

Detecting antigens in people who don’t have symptoms is considered a key way to stop the spread of the disease and get more people back to work and school. “With the new test, our hope is positive cases will be identified early and reduce the risk of unknown transmission,” Kathryn Barger, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said at the press conference.

What’s next: If the tests are shown to be accurate, they could greatly expand testing of frontline and essential workers, as well as others who need to be tested on a regular basis. Researchers are relying on pilot studies, focus groups and surveys to help tackle a number of challenges, including how often a person should repeat testing and the best way to implement large-scale testing.

Neeraj Sood, USC’s lead researcher on the collaboration, said the goal is to determine whether these antigen tests can be used in a range of settings — from classrooms to other workplaces to homes. The tests can be conducted using a paper strip and have the potential to be self-administered.

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