NCC Exec. Meyer seeks to continue expanding virus testing
NEW CASTLE – New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer has been pleased by the utilization of COVID-19 testing sites set up in recent weeks, and he hopes to widely expand the availability of tests in coming months.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with Delaware Business Times on Thursday, Meyer said that he was encouraged that Delaware’s outbreak never seemed to approach the crisis seen in neighboring areas like New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, especially considering the interconnectedness of the region. He credited Gov. John Carney’s administration and the leaders of the state’s health care systems with treating the pandemic to the point that cases never neared the surge capacity limits on beds and respirators, while also expanding testing to track the virus’s spread.
As of June 10, the state had more than 10,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 414 deaths. The percentage of positive cases related to overall tests, however, has continued to fall in recent weeks.
“It’s not perfect. There are people on my staff who’ve lost members of their family, and that’s a tragedy that we can never undo,” Meyer said. “But we’re going to continue working really hard.”
While some are suffering from fatigue over the pandemic’s guidelines, Meyer said that he largely sees the public still abiding by them. He noted that he attended the George Floyd-inspired protest in Wilmington recently where there were at least 1,000 people in attendance.
“I couldn’t see a single person that did not have a mask on, and so I think people are taking it seriously,” he said.
Meyer, who was perhaps the first Delaware public official to call for widespread testing of residents as a way out of the pandemic-spurred lockdown, said that he still believed that testing would be the quickest way to jumpstart sectors of the county and state economy.
“When you think of how we’re going to get out of this thing, one way is a vaccine and another way is really effective treatment,” he said. “Most of us don’t have much control over a vaccine or treatment, but a third way is we start turning this invisible virus into a visible virus, because if we know where it is, then we can largely go back to work, back to play, back to schools, etc.”
“So, the more people get tested, the quicker we identify where this thing is, and we can squash it once and for all,” he said.
Meyer has been credited with bringing Curative Inc., the California-based company that is supplying 200,000 saliva-based COVID-19 tests to Delaware in a $30 million deal, to the table with state officials. He explained that lifelong friend Dr. Neil Hochstein read his News Journal Op-Ed on the need for more testing and began consulting with colleague Dr. Michael Bass on how to help.
“Suddenly their whole practices were gone [amid the pandemic’s economic shutdown],” Meyer said. “Those two doctors in particular made it clear to me anything that I could do to help us get out of this, they would help us out.”
They connected the county executive with Dr. David Sinclair, a Harvard University medical school professor, and Dr. Chris Mason, a Cornell University medical researcher. Those connections led to meetings with a number of leading testing companies across the country, including one in Atlanta and Tennessee. However, it was Curative, which had just completed a sale of thousands of tests to the U.S. Air Force and the city of Los Angeles, that state health officials felt most confident in.
Meyer is glad to see the hundreds of residents coming out to county testing sites to receive a Curative saliva-based test. He noted that about 1,200 residents got tested Wednesday.
“Curative told me yesterday that we actually had more tests running through the lab Tuesday than the entire state of Texas,” he said. “That’s not on a per capita basis, that’s overall.”
He’s not satisfied with those numbers, however, and said that he wants to increase testing to a point where every resident has the opportunity to receive a test weekly. Meyer said that his parents’ hesitancy to go to restaurants right now, despite allowances for sit-down service again under the governor’s reopening plan, convinced him of that goal.
“My parents love to go to restaurants, but they told me that for the next year they don’t plan to go to restaurants. It’s sad,” he said. “I recognized that until my parents can have confidence going to a restaurant, we have a serious economic problem.”
Meyer said that he believed widespread testing will be the tool to bridge the gap until a vaccine is ready, providing relief to affected businesses by boosting consumer confidence.
“If we can assure you that every single person in that restaurant has been tested in the last week and is tested negative? Would you go?” he said, noting his parents said they probably would.
For now, the Curative tests are largely identifying pockets of concern and trying to head off potential outbreaks. One of the tools that the county has been using to decide where to hold testing sites is an innovative collaboration with Biobot Analytics, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-incubated startup that analyzes urine and stool samples from municipal wastewater systems to identify asymptomatic carriers who are potentially shedding the COVID-19 virus.
Beginning in mid-April, the firm analyzed samples from the Wilmington Wastewater Treatment Plant and in recent weeks have added 10 additional sample sites around the county. The Biobot analysis estimates that positive cases of COVID-19 could be upward of 75,000 – or nearly one in six residents in the county.
The data has further convinced Meyer of the need to acquire more tests, which he said is a constant effort for the administration.
“If I told you six weeks ago that we, in Delaware, would have 200,000 saliva tests, you probably would have thought I was nuts. There’s a lot that we’re working on behind the scenes to get to that point [of acquiring more tests],” he said.
By Jacob Owens