New coronavirus tests may offer faster, easier diagnosis

Buckhead chiropractor Jessica Propes comes into contact with 20 to 30 people a day, which can be risky in the middle of a pandemic.

That is why the 33-year-old came to Wellness for Humanity, a new facility in Atlanta, to take a diagnostic test for COVID-19, using her saliva.

"This test lets me know if I'm actively fighting an infection, because I do see so many people a day, and there is a risk for that," Propes says.

The test, which requires collecting about a tablespoon of spit in a large plastic tube, is a PCR or molecular test that detects the coronavirus' RNA, or genetic fingerprint, in the saliva sample.

There is no uncomfortable nasal swab, but collecting saliva requires some patience, Propes says.   

"It was definitely harder to generate 5 millimeters of saliva than I anticipated," Propes laughs.  "That was about it. It was super easy."

Heather Repp of Wellness for Humanity says the saliva test, which takes about 5 minutes,  is highly accurate and the results can be turned around quickly.

"We overnight FedEx it, and we have priority with our labs," Repp says.  "So, we pay them a nice fee, and we get our results back the next day.  So, that's kind of how we're able to get a 36-hour turnaround with a high-quality lab."

Clients pay $169 for a single test, she says, and companies pay a negotiated fee to expedite their test results.

PCR tests like the saliva test and the nasal swab are "the gold standard" for COVID-19 diagnostic testing, says microbiologist Dr. Amber Schmidtke, Ph.D., who is tracking Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak.

Still, she says, there's another cheaper, faster diagnostic test, known as a rapid antigen test, growing in popularity.

It screens for proteins on the surface of the virus.

"It's something that doesn't require a lot of training or equipment to perform," Schmidtke says.  "It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get a result.  So those are both really good advantages. It's also a lot cheaper."

The rapid antigen tests work best, she says, in places you would expect to see the virus, like schools, long-term care facilities and healthcare settings.

But rapid antigen tests are not included in the Georgia Department of Public Health's daily COVID-19 case counts, because, Schmidtke says, they are not as accurate as the PCR molecular tests, which are counted in the daily numbers.

"The test may have a reliability problem, but the President and the Governor just announced that 3 million of these tests are coming to Georgia, and they've been in the market for the last month," Schmidtke says.

She expects Georgia will soon begin including rapid antigen tests the state's COVID-19 case count. 

That will likely cause a temporary jump in cases. 

Schmidtke says don't panic if you see a spike, once that happens.

She says those cases will likely be backdated, or old cases, rather than active infections.