A statewide effort to test for coronavirus antibodies rolled out at its new Idaho Falls location Monday.

The testing site has been set up at The Waterfront at Snake River Landing by Crush the Curve Idaho, a group of state business leaders who are working together to provide tests and other resources to combat the coronavirus. It’s the second location set up by the group to provide antibody testing on a mass scale for Idahoans.

Antibody tests help determine whether someone was previously exposed to the coronavirus. The few antibody tests which have been approved by the FDA, including the one from Abbott Laboratories that is being used by Crush the Curve Idaho, are mainly intended to collect data about how widespread the virus was and not diagnose people who are currently infected.

“This is the best way for us to collect data. This isn’t the answer or solution to controlling this but it is very good information,” Crush the Curve Executive Director Tina Upson said.

The Idaho Falls site was organized by Ball Ventures and is staffed by more than a dozen nurses and officials from Mountain View Hospital. The tests are provided by Abbott Laboratories and received Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA on Sunday, making it the eighth such test to be federally cleared in response to the coronavirus.

Ball Ventures CEO Cortney Liddiard was one of the founding members of Crush the Curve, along with Ball Ventures Ahlquist CEO Tommy Ahlquist, and also serves on Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus business taskforce that was launched last week.

He said the location at The Waterfront was chosen to allow for social distancing among patients and should be able to continue providing antibody tests for the foreseeable future.

“This testing fits hand-in-glove with the plans and timelines we talk about on the executive committee for helping to reopen,” Liddiard said.

What testing looks like

Volunteers and employees from Ball Ventures guide the cars through the parking lot as they approach for their allotted testing window. Patients are asked to wait in their cars as they filled out the paperwork needed to get tested while keeping a distance from each other.

“My family had all the symptoms for it back in February,” Matt Unger said as he filled out the testing paperwork while parked outside The Waterfront early Monday afternoon. “I want to know if we had it so we can know what do about it now.”

Once inside, the patients were guided into one of the makeshift cubicles set up in the event center. Nurses in protective masks and gloves draw blood samples for the antibody tests, which would be sent to Mountain View Hospital to be prepared and shipped to the University of Washington to be tested on its Abbott machine. The Abbott test takes less than 30 minutes to complete on the machine, but shipping time means Idaho patients won’t get their test results back for two or three days.

Crush the Curve is also among the private groups conducting PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which are used to determine if patients currently have the virus. Upson said those tests are largely being limited to essential workers or companies who require that their employees be screened for the infection before they return to work.

The benefits and limits of antibody testing

Widespread antibody testing is widely considered a major step needed for states to safely begin reopening and reversing stay-at-home orders. Dr. Richard Nathan, an infectious disease specialist who works with Mountain View and Idaho Falls Community Hospital, said that the antibody testing can provide public health officials with good information about how widespread the disease is across the state.

When it comes to individual results, however, Nathan said there’s less clarity about what having antibodies detected means. The World Health Organization issued a brief on Friday warning that there was no evidence yet that antibodies were fully protective.

“A lot of experts expected that once somebody was infected, they’d be protected from repeat viral infection. But as we’ve gotten more information and more investigation has been done, that’s not clearly true right now,” Nathan said.

Some versions of the test may not be able to distinguish between different versions of the coronavirus, which could just mean the patient was exposed to an uncommon strain of the common cold instead of the kind that causes COVID-19. Patients who had milder infections from the virus also produce fewer antibodies, so not all exposures to COVID-19 could mean the same thing.

“Going forward, we will be able to quantify the levels of antibody response to find out who’s protected from infection and who’s not, but we can’t do that yet,” Nathan said.

Nathan said that larger, more experience testing companies would provide more accurate tests at the moment and cited Abbott among the providers that Mountain View worked with and considered reliable. In the near future, Mountain View hopes to procure one of the Abbott testing machines so it can process the results in Idaho Falls and potentially provide same-day results.

Antibody testing results are not required to be reported to local or state health districts because they do not diagnose whether a patient has the virus, although Crush the Curve has said it plans to make the results available to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare upon request. Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said the department is looking into ways of using the data that Crush the Curve has shared so far and could use it to help find undiagnosed cases.

The Idaho Falls testing site was on track to test 500 people during its first day. Upson said that between the locations in Meridian, Idaho Falls and the one launching in Chubbuck later this week, the group hoped to collectively test 18,000 Idahoans by the end of the month.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.