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Coronavirus Health Care News Voices from the Crisis

Voices: State offers Curative COVID-19 tests to all who want them

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COVID-19 testing

Agatha Bacelar, Curative’s director of field operations

Agatha Bacelar is not a Delawarean, but she passed through town on May 14 to oversee the rollout of the first of the 200,000 COVID-19 saliva tests that the state purchased from Curative for $30 million.

A team from Nanticoke Hospital and the Delaware Department of Health (DPH), under the watchful eye of Bacelar, tested 550 people in Seaford over four hours. They’ll receive their results by e-mail within 36 hours.

“It was really well organized” by the Nanticoke and state team, said Bacelar, who joined Curative in March as director of field operations following an unsuccessful primary campaign against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “All we were doing really was swapping out the type of tests that everyone has been administering. The training went smoothly. We had three car lanes for tests – one line for people who preregistered and one for those who hadn’t, and the third based on volume. We also had a fourth lane for people who just walked up without a car.”

Bacelar said it’s still not clear how many different people will ultimately be tested from the Curative saliva tests.

“DPH will figure that out,” she said. “Anecdotally, from other places, health care workers and first responders will get tested once and then tested whenever they may have been exposed. It will be more frequent based on environment. If someone tests positive, the recommendation will be to self-isolate and then get retested.”

Curative was formed in January to do sepsis testing but when the coronavirus hit, the co-founders “spent an evening to determine if the infrastructure could pivot. We partnered with KorvaLabs, which was doing anti-sports doping but there wasn’t much sports happening so we built this high-throughput oral fluid testing lab together,” she said.

“In Silicon Valley, it’s all about sheer hustle. You’d don’t have to have everything figured out at the beginning,” she added. “When we first started, the sample would come with a paper requisition form that had to be typed in manually. We can’t do that anymore and needed to automate so that you can scan the test kit, get the person’s information, and the lab already has both when it gets the test.

When Bacelar started in March, Curative had 15 employees; as of May 15, it had more than 300 and has completed nearly 225,000 tests nationwide.

With its purchase, Delaware became Curative’s second-largest client behind Texas, which purchased 300,000 kits. And Bacalar was already in Chicago setting up the next test site while Curative employees from Washington, D.C. were preparing to travel to Delaware for the next set of tests that will be processed in its D.C. lab.

One reason for the growth of the company, which started testing in Los Angeles County, is the ability of its test to be administered and collected in mobile locations. For example, the L.A. Fire Department drops off Curative saliva test kits at nursing homes and then returns at the end of the day to collect the samples.

It’s a simple process: The person being tested swabs the inside of his or her mouth and secures the swab inside of a test tube with a solution that preserves the test, reducing the risk to medical personnel and requiring less PPE. And the test – one of the few saliva-based tests to get emergency approval from the FDA, has a comparatively strong 10% false negative rate, according to its own non-peer reviewed studies.

The biggest lesson from the first day of testing in Delaware? “When the cars started to line up, we walked along the rows of cars giving people a verbal link to the URL so they could register. We’re going to shift to a memorable URL for other sites and put that link on signs that the volunteers can hold up.”

Bacelar says success will be demonstrating that Curative can test in high volumes with fast turnaround, accuracy and mobilizing with tests across a region.

“Delaware is trying to make testing as accessible as possible,” she said. “We’re limiting the number of qualifying questions to ‘are you symptomatic’ and ‘when did you start having symptoms.’ If you show up at a test site, you won’t be turned away. Everyone can get tested if they would like.”

–Peter Osborne

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