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State's Chief Medical Executive Speaks On Antibody Tests And Reopening The State

Dr. Joniegh Khaldun
Michigan Executive Office of the Governor
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Dr. Khaldun speaks at the governor's press conference on May 29.

If you look at Michigan's official data on COVID-19 cases right now, you’ll see information on both diagnostic tests and serologic, or antibody tests.

Those antibody tests can show if someone has had a past infection of the coronavirus, though they can’t be used to diagnose COVID-19.

But prior to this week, data on both COVID-19 and antibody tests was reported together in the state’s database.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is the state’s chief medical executive. She joined WKAR’s Sophia Saliby to explain the change in reporting and to discuss the state's latest COVID-19 data.

Interview Highlights

On the difference between antibody and diagnostic tests

An antibody test basically tells you if you might have been in contact with the virus that causes COVID-19 in the past, and it can take a couple of weeks actually for someone to develop antibodies, if they are going to develop them. What antibody tests don't do, at this point and there’s more research that needs to be done, even if you have antibodies, it does not tell you that you definitely are immune to COVID-19. And even if you are immune to COVID-19, it does not tell you how long you have been immune for. So, it's important that even if someone has a positive antibody test, it's not used to make individual decisions about a patient, whether they should quarantine or whether they should continue using personal protective equipment for example. The diagnostic test, the PCR test, that's the one that actually looks for the DNA evidence of the virus in a person's system. One other important point to note, is that even though we're separating out the data right now that has not changed the number of cases that we have been reporting in this state. It doesn’t change the numbers or the way we're reporting the actual lab tests.

Khaldun says as antibody tests became more readily available to Michiganders, those test results began to filter into their data system. After that, they began separating the results.

On why antibody tests are important for health experts

These antibody tests, they're important for a research perspective. They're also important from a population perspective to understand broadly how the population may have been exposed. So, we know there is actually a lot of research going on right now in the southeast part of the state. We know that there are health systems who have access to these tests that are sending data back to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. That is important but I would really caution our medical providers to not use these antibody test determine on an individual basis if that person is actually immune and what that person should do.

On when she thinks the state can fully reopen

If the trends continue as they are, and again, once you reopen a part of the state, you need to wait and let the data play out if you will by making sure people are getting tested and making sure you're not seeing a rise in cases. We'll reopen the economy a little bit, but we'll look at the data to make sure we're not seeing a spike or a surge in cases, and if everything looks ok, we'll be able to slowly move forward with the rest of the plan. I don't have a crystal ball to say what specific date because it depends on what everyone does.

The state has created a website to help residents visualize the Governor’s plan for reopening. Earlier this month, parts of north Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula were allowed to reopen some parts of their economies, like restaurants and bars. The governor has also allowed retail stores and auto dealerships throughout the state to start up business again with some restrictions. 

On if she thinks there will be a second wave of the disease in Michigan

I certainly hope we do not see a second wave in the state, but that is certainly something that I lose sleep about. We have to do this well. We have to make sure that even if we are reopening the economy, we're making sure people are using the right social distancing measures, disinfecting measures, wearing masks, cleaning down services and washing hands. Those things are incredibly important. I am very concerned. I'm concerned about the upcoming fall and the flu season that will be here with us in addition to COVID-19. So, I think we need to be very cautious. We need to watch the data and hopefully, we do not see a second wave that we know other countries have seen.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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