North Dakota COVID-19 antibody testing awaits plan

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota has tens of thousands of COVID-19 antibody tests that still await a plan for their use, months after the state acquired them.

The state acquired 178,000 COVID-19 antibody tests last spring using $3.68 million from the federal CARES Act coronavirus aid, the Bismarck Tribune reported. Only about 8,000 have actually been used, health officials said.

A forthcoming plan is dependent on a new, full-time state health officer coming on board. Four people, all chosen by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, have served in the role since May, but all have quit. Interviews for a new person are ongoing.

The tests analyze patients’ blood for antibodies and identify how the virus is spreading. Experts say it still has its limitations, and they look to its usefulness long-term. If someone who has never had symptoms of COVID-19 tests positive for antibodies, it’s an indication they already contracted the virus but were asymptomatic.

Dr. Noe Mateo, an infectious disease specialist at Sanford Health in Bismarck, said the antibody tests are mainly useful for determining how much of a population has been infected and who could become a convalescent plasma donor. Convalescent plasma has been administered as a treatment for the coronavirus disease, but questions still remain as to how to best use plasma for such patients, Mateo said.

North Dakota received its serology tests at a time of transition between state health officers. Former Department of Health Chief of Staff Dirk Wilke, who has no medical training, is now the interim state health officer.

The new state health office, once hired, will develop the plan for using the antibody tests.

North Dakota has become a hot spot in the nation for the virus, with the worst per capita rates of new cases.

Officials on Saturday confirmed 13 new deaths in the last day, bringing the statewide death toll from the virus to 915. There have been 349 deaths so far in November, the deadliest month since the pandemic began.

The state said there were 317 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Saturday, an increase of eight. The most recent data shows only 15 staffed Intensive Care Unit beds and 278 staffed inpatient beds available statewide.

There have been nearly 78,000 positive tests since the start of the pandemic, including 750 reported on Saturday.