COVID-19 has changed everything — ask anyone in the healthcare field. And the changes are not just abound for those who are either suffering from the virus or treating it. Going through a pandemic as we are, healthcare seems to be changing by the minute. Providers are having to change their processes and invest in not-before anticipated areas.
From the beginning, there have been two types of COVID-19 tests, the Rapid Antigen and the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) molecular. Both are effective — but it all comes down to timing. For the rapid variety, it can be too soon in the virus’ lifespan, and it can be too late.
Arbor Health, Morton Hospital’s Ancillary Services Director Julie Taylor explained that unless the patient is symptomatic, the Rapid Antigen test has little value. Even though the patient is contagious when they first come down with the virus, it takes several days before the body starts producing antigens. She said, “It is the antigen spike that the Rapid test picks up. If there is not an antigen spike at the moment of the Rapid test, it will not show positive.”
Likewise, after the symptoms start subsiding, the virus is still alive and contagious for several more days, but the antigens are dwindling, so there aren’t enough for the Rapid test to do its job. Thus, the Rapid test has a narrow window of effectiveness. Unless you are symptomatic, the Rapid Antigen test is not going to tell you what you need to know.
The PCR test, on the other hand, looks for the genetic material of the actual virus and is much more sensitive. Therefore, it is able to detect the virus from the beginning of its lifespan to the end. However, the PCR tests were more difficult to come by until recently.
For the first couple years of the pandemic, most health systems could perform only the Rapid variety. For the molecular version, it took a prominent medical laboratory to run the test. Arbor Health utilized a lab in Bellingham, which, including the transportation time, required a three-day turnaround before receiving the results. This was not convenient for anyone.
The extended wait is over for Arbor Health patients. Last month, the East Lewis County-based health system purchased the equipment for in-house molecular test processing. With this investment, the turnaround time has been reduced to same-day results.
CEO Leianne Everett said the machine will be utilized for additional laboratory tests as well, but the COVID-19 virus was definitely the driving factor. She said, “It is apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic is not going away quickly. Therefore, it was important that we take the steps needed to meet the needs of our community.”
Taylor added that if individuals believe they have been infected with the COVID-19 virus, they should contact their primary care provider to arrange testing. Walk-in tests are not available.