ALBANY — After a rocky rollout, the state’s antibody survey is officially underway.
A quiet group of mask-clad people queued up at an Albany supermarket on Monday.
Upon registering for an antibody test, shoppers were directed toward one of three technicians who pricked their finger to collect a blood sample.
After taking off their gloves, sanitizing their hands and wiping down the table, nurses quickly pivoted to the next person.
The scene served as a sharp contrast from the day before, when the state quietly rolled out testing sites at several local PriceChopper/Market32 locations, frustrating Schenectady County lawmakers who claimed they were kept in the dark and confusing the general public.
The initial statewide survey facilitated by the state Department of Public Health is designed to determine how many people have been infected by the coronavirus — not to diagnose new cases.
The goal is to initially test 3,000 people at random, a number officials hope will reveal the extent to which the virus has spread in the community.
After determining the initial statewide infection rate, officials hope to accelerate the testing, which will serve as a barometer that will guide how quickly the state can reopen the economy.
State officials asked the precise testing locations be kept discrete to avoid potentially sick people from flocking to supermarkets under the mistaken belief that they can be tested.
Officials said late Monday they were analyzing if they had collected enough data and needed to conduct a second day of testing.
Results could come in a matter of days.
“We’re finalizing plans in terms of releasing the information to the public,” said an official with the state Department of Health.
Antibody tests are not designed to diagnose whether someone has the virus, but rather to determine how many people have COVID-19 antibodies in their system, an indication that they have been infected but have since recovered.
For many, the virus presents mild symptoms and can often self-resolve without the person knowing they have been infected.
Officials hope to ultimately test hundreds of thousands of people in what Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said will be the most aggressive effort to track the virus in the nation.
“We’re starting the largest antibody test ever done today in New York, the largest sample,” Cuomo said on Monday.
Nearly 634,000 of the state’s 19.5 million residents have been tested, roughly 39 percent of them yielding positive results, mostly in the New York City area.
But county-level data is insufficient owing to the lack of testing, Cuomo said.
And existing data do not paint a complete picture because only a small subset of the population, including those showing symptoms, first responders and senior citizens, are being selected for testing.
Just 2,252 people in Schenectady County have been tested as of Monday, for instance, which accounts for just 1.4 percent of the population.
Of those, 336 have tested positive.
“The sample size would be so small that it statistically would not be representative,” Cuomo said on Monday. “So you would need a tremendous sample size to be able to get it down to the county level.”
Officials defended using supermarkets as survey locations.
Grocery stores are an ideal location because they’re high volume and attract a broad demographic of ages and ethnicities, said Brad Hutton, the state’s deputy commissioner of the office of public health, who briefed reporters at a testing location on Monday.
“We certainly are working on making sure there’s an opportunity for social distancing in the stores today,” said Hutton, who said the state weighed outdoor sites, but opted against it over concerns that wind would blow away the dozens of cards utilized as part of the process.
Eventually the state envisions expanding the testing to hospitals and other healthcare providers.
Medical experts have warned that antibody tests may not be a bulletproof solution owing to some tests that have been rushed to the market without approval from the Food and Drug Administration, resulting in flawed tests that may reveal false positives.
“The problem is that these are tests that need to be validated and calibrated, and many of the tests out there don’t do that,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top disease control expert, on Monday. “So even though you hear about companies flooding the market with these antibody tests, a lot of them are not validated.”
The state’s tests are FDA-approved and samples will be processed at the state-operated Wadsworth Lab.
“New York’s test has been validated and is very accurate,” Hutton said.
While promising, Hutton acknowledged there are some unknowns, including the duration of immunity and if people can contract the virus again after recovering.
“While it’s a marker for immunity, we don’t know if it’s partial or complete immunity,” Hutton said.
Those who have recovered have built up antibodies in their blood and can donate what’s known as “convalescent plasma” to sick patients to boost their ability to combat the virus.
Widespread testing is necessary to ease the state’s shutdown, Cuomo said. But so is contact tracing, or tracking down everyone who may have been exposed to a positive person.
To do that, the state would need to hire an army of thousands of “investigators,” Cuomo said.
“That’s an entire undertaking that no one has even imagined before,” he said.
While the state would pay for those tracers, Cuomo said the federal government must help navigate supply chain issues that have led to testing shortages.
“On the testing, I can’t solve for the national manufacturers not being able to produce the volume to sell to my state labs,” Cuomo said.
The state-run, drive-thru lab at the University at Albany remains open, and those who believe they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 and have symptoms must call the state hotline at 888-364-3065 to set up an appointment.
Rite-Aid also announced on Monday that their location at 1863 Central Ave. in Colonie will offer drive-thru testing starting on Wednesday and expects to administer 200 tests daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Eligible people are required to pre-register and schedule appointments online at www.riteaid.com.