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Coronavirus Q&A with Dr. Stephen Prescott: August 24 Update

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Dr. Stephen Prescott, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation president, answers your medical questions about coronavirus and COVID-19.

My grandchildren will be starting school in the next few weeks. What is the best advice I can give them to keep them safe from the virus? 

“I hate to keep banging the drum for masks and physical distancing, but those really are going to do the most good in keeping your grandchildren safe. Unfortunately, it’ll be really hard for kids — especially young ones — in school to follow guidelines for physical distancing and mask-wearing. It’s what they need to do, but I just don’t know if it’s a realistic expectation. My personal vote of confidence lies in short-term online learning. As we’ve already seen in Georgia, it didn’t take long for huge numbers of students to be quarantined within a few days of in-person classes starting.”

I’ve had two COVID-19 tests in the last month. The first one is because I was having symptoms. I was told how awful the test was, but the nurse barely swabbed my nose. The second one was because I was having surgery. The nurse that did that test was very aggressive in swabbing to the point that it hurt. Both tests were negative, but I wanted to know if the results would be the same with the tests being done so differently?

“The most important point to make is that it isn’t necessarily the type of test that matters, it’s the quality of the sample obtained. Unfortunately for all of our nasal passages, that uncomfortable deep nasal swab is still getting the best samples with the most consistency. The quality of samples is really holding up some of the testing options beyond this deep nasal swab, so it remains the best option for accuracy and worst for comfort. So far, inaccuracy in testing has been a widespread issue. The best overall option is to get multiple tests if you can, so the fact you had two negative tests is a much better indicator. But good news is on the horizon: New saliva tests are being rolled out that are very close in accuracy to the invasive nasal swab, so that will be a welcomed solution and will result in a lot more tests being done overall.”

What is the new rapid testing that will be available in long-term care facilities?

“My suspicion is it will be the so-called ‘point-of-care’ tests that have recently been used in the White House and other various political offices. These point-of-care tests can be done in 15 minutes. The advantage of that is they can say in the moment whether you have Covid-19 or not with relatively high accuracy and without a multi-day wait. These tests are based on proteins on the surface of virus, not on genetic material. These are great tests and what we really want – these are already widely used for strep, flu, etc. It’s something to be desired, so what’s the problem? The worry right now is false negatives, because these tests don’t detect low levels of virus very well. It’s fine if someone is actively infected or has a high viral load. It’s not going to be as good at detecting asymptomatic carriers, people who have yet to develop symptoms, or people with very minor symptoms who can still spread the virus.”

Is there any new research that OMRF is conducting to learn more/fight COVID-19?

“Our scientists are actively focused on the antibody response to Covid-19 in our bodies, learning which ones block the virus and also determining how long this immunity lasts. Similarly, we have a project where we are asking these same questions about potential vaccines. We’re also looking into another alternative approach using an existing vaccine for something entirely different that we believe may boost the body’s immune system against viruses in general. If it works, it could potentially help fend off Covid-19 infection, but a lot more research needs to be done. Additionally, we’re exploring the potential for the installation of ultraviolet lights in public spaces, which are safe for people but will destroy virus particles. This virus is still new, but we are doing what we can on a variety of fronts to help stop it.”

What kind of research exists that may indicate whether you can get reinfected with COVID-19 if you have antibodies in your system?

“This is another big focus of our antibody study that I mentioned. Large population studies are underway to address this question. To carry this out, you have to have people who have are known to have had Covid-19 and recovered. They had to have a positive viral test, then a confirmed negative one. Then we look at their blood for antibody production. I know it feels like an eternity since this pandemic started, but it’s only been 6-7 months since it’s been in the U.S. It was impossible to do these studies at the beginning, because we were just trying to save lives. Now these studies are possible, but it takes time. This is an answer we will find, just not as fast as we’d all like. To date, researchers have not been able to document any cases of reinfection.”

Is there any sort of link to blood type and a higher risk of contracting COVID-19?

I’ve seen one report that suggests different susceptibility based on blood types, but the differences are very minor. The take-home message from this was that there’s not a certain blood type that makes you safe or one that makes you really susceptible. Blood type is not a leading risk factor at all compared to things like age, pre-existing diseases or compromised immunity.”

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