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Antibody Testing Emerges In Central Illinois Amid Many Unknowns

nurse handling antibody test
Mary Altaffer
A registered nurse places a blood specimen in a bag with its requisition during a COVID-19 antibody test.

Many health experts say coronavirus antibody testing is key to reopening the economy, since the test is intended to show if you've already contracted the virus and developed immunity. But so far, antibody tests have been limited and hard to find.

Tom Pluira headshot
Credit pliuramedlaw.com
Dr. Tom Pliura has opened a site for coronavirus diagnostic and antibody testing in Bloomington.

LeRoy doctor Tom Pliura has been testing for antibodies for weeks. On Monday, he opened a new temporary clinic at the Sports Enhancement Center, 2406 E. Empire St., Bloomington, where he is offering coronavirus antibody and diagnostic testing.

“The governor here in Illinois (JB Pritzker), I want to help him in any way I can to reopen or give him the level of comfort,” Pliura said. “What I keep hearing is test, test, test, but there’s a lot of places that aren’t doing that.”

It seems very few are offering the antibody test.

Peoria-based OSF HealthCare isn't testing for antibodies.

“At this time, OSF HealthCare is still in the discovery phase when it comes to antibody tests related to COVID-19 and is not giving them,” said spokesperson Shelli Dankoff. “There are still questions around the best way to do the tests and what to test for. We continue to gather information to make the best decision for those who come to us for care.”

Advocate BroMenn Medical Center started antibody testing earlier this month. You need an order from an Advocate doctor to get one. A spokesperson said Advocate is looking to identify who may be eligible to participate in convalescent plasma donation. Doctors have been studying plasma fromthe already-infected as a possible COVID-19 treatment.

“The results of antibody testing will help in estimating the total number of people who have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States,” said Advocate spokesperson Lynn Hutley. “In addition, it will help us learn how the body's immune system responds to the virus and how the virus spreads. We will continue to evaluate the potential for expanding to more patients.”

Kayla Banks
Credit Carle Health System
Kayla Banks with Carle Health System said Carle has started antibody staff on a limited basis, but may expand as more becomes known about immunity.

Carle Health System has a hospital in Urbana and medical facilities serving 41 counties in eastern Illinois and Indiana and is in the process of acquiring Advocate BroMenn and Advocate Eureka hospitals.

Carle started antibody testing a few weeks ago, but Kayla Banks, Carle's vice president of Quality, Women's and Children's Services, said it's been limited.

“Mostly those who are front line or first-responders, including EMTs, police force entities to make sure they are prioritized,” Banks said.

Banks said you also can request a test if you think you may have had the coronavirus before diagnostic testing was easily available, or if you are one of Carle's clinical workers at greatest risk of exposure.

She said the medical provider is looking to see how widespread immunity may be.

Banks said questions about immunity are what's keeping antibody testing from becoming more widespread. Will those antibodies protect you for life, for five or 10 years, or maybe one only year, like the flu?

“The hesitation in making it more widely available is still that we have very limited evidence around what positive antibodies mean clinically about someone’s level of protection against either infection or reinfection going forward,” Banks said.

Another reason antibody testing has been sparse are reliability concerns. Reopening the economy based on a bunch of false positives could lead to more outbreaks.

Pliura said his tests through LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics are highly reliable, unlike some of the testing done at the start of the pandemic.

“I think these antibody tests early on got some bad press by China flooding the market or attempting to flood the market with some unreliable tests,” Pliura said.

Banks said Carle knew testing validity could be an issue since the FDA used an emergency authorization to rush these testing kits to the masses.

“There are always concerns with reliability and validity in the tests as anything we do quickly is never quite as perfect as we like, but with recognition that it’s the best available at this time, we felt like it was still a value to implement here,” Banks said.

Carle Health System uses Abbott's antibody test, and Banks said Carle's own lab work has verified the tests' accuracy.

What has the testing shown so far? Carle has tested about 150 clinical workers; about 10% show antibodies.

Banks said they are just filing away that info for now until they get a better sense for what it means.

“It’s really just informational for our staff at this point, hoping that as soon as that information becomes available around what level of protection, if any, is provided by the presence of antibodies our staff can help with that understanding,” Banks said.

Pliura said less than 3% of the nearly 2,000 antibody tests he's given at his offices in LeRoy, Champaign and Marion show exposure to the coronavirus.

“It makes sense that the penetration of this disease hasn’t been as broad spectrum as they’ve had in some places,” he said, adding having a better understanding of your potential risk of exposure offers at least some peace of mind, though medical professionals are still trying to determine what that immunity means. 

“There is a tremendous desire for people to want to know,” Pliura said. “They want to know whether they had it or not.”

Pliura refers to it is the badge of immunity, though medical professionals are still trying to figure out what that immunity means.

His clinic in Bloomington plans to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays with limited hours on weekends. Pre-registration is required. You can sign up at covidtest.center.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.