Capital Health conducts antibody testing study to understand spread of COVID-19 among healthcare workers

By contributor Marc Monseau

Capital Health is conducting testing to detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in its doctors, nurses, and other staff members to better understand the spread of the virus among healthcare workers.

The Pennington-based health system began testing volunteers on April 13 to see if they had produced antibodies to fend-off COVID-19, an indicator that they had been infected with the virus. Through the study, Capital Health aims to not only inform staff of whether they’ve been exposed, but also help the medical community better understand the spread of COVID-19 in a clinical setting, findings that could eventually be applied to the broader community.

“Everyone was worried about the numbers we were hearing out of Europe, China, and New York City of healthcare workers getting infected and even dying,” said Dr. Robert Remstein, Vice President, Accountable Care for Capital Health when asked about the origins of the study. “We had an absolute obligation to keep our workforce safe and feel safe in their work every day.”

Gaining a better understanding of the penetration of COVID-19 among high-risk health workers practicing rigid safety procedures and wearing protective gear could impact ongoing practices to keep those most at risk of infection as well as those most vulnerable safe, Remstein said. “This data is important to help us make decisions,” he said.

An antibody test shows whether someone has been exposed to or potentially had the coronavirus and developed the antibodies to fight the infection. It doesn’t guarantee immunity, but physicians say a positive antibody test indicates that a patient may have some level of protection against reinfection. 

People infected with COVID-19 produce antibodies that can be detected in blood samples whether or not they are exhibiting symptoms. To date, Capital Health has tested about 1,200 employees, but hopes more than 2,000 of its 4,000 staff will have participated by May 8 when the study wraps up.

“At that time we can sit down and analyze the data,” said Patrick De Deyne, director of clinical research at Capital Health. “We have plans to go through peer review and make this a publishable exercise to share with the medical community and society at large.”

The antibody tests do not indicate when or where staff members may have contracted COVID-19, but studying the penetration of disease among workers who are well-trained on safety procedures, wear personal protective equipment, and receive temperature checks when reporting to work, may provide valuable insights into the role of safety procedures in the spread of the virus.

New York City officials announced on Wednesday that the city is offering free coronavirus antibody testing to more than 150,000 health-care workers and first responders to determine if they’ve likely been infected with Covid-19 and recovered.

De Deyen, who leads the Capital Health study, said it is still too early to draw conclusions based on the preliminary data. “If the results are that our infection rates are much lower than the community at large, then that tells us that our staff are doing very well at protecting themselves,” De Deyen said.

The test results are kept confidential, though staff who participate are given their personal results.

There is still some debate within the scientific community about whether the presence of COVID-19 antibodies prevent a second infection. On Friday, for instance, the World Health Organization published a scientific brief underscoring the lack of evidence to guaranteeing antibody-mediated immunity.

To conduct blood serum tests for the study, Capital Health partnered with Doylestown Pennsylvania-based FlowMetric Inc., which provides testing services for the biotechnology industry.