Last week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the launch of a COVID-19 survey that will send city employees to homes to request blood samples for antibody testing.
Conducted by the Houston Health Department in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine, the survey will include only randomly selected households for participation.
According to a press release from the city, teams consisting of Houston Health Department Staff and Houston Fire Department paramedics will visit the selected homes and ask household members to answer survey questions and provide a blood sample.
Participation is voluntary, but Mayor Turner strongly encouraged residents to cooperate if chosen.
“If we knock on your door, I strongly encourage you and your loved ones to participate in this important survey,” said Turner. “The data you provide by participating will help inform strategies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.”
For selected households, the survey teams will request all residents of the home participate regardless of age.
The city says the survey is designed to help understand how many people were previously infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, but cautions that the antibody tests do not replace the oral or nasal swab viral tests that check for current infection.
Baylor College of Medicine is one of several organizations that has developed an antibody or “serological” test. Such tests can indicate whether an individual has produced antibodies in response to the coronavirus, but some medical researchers have questioned the value of widespread antibody testing.
Last month, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center researchers published a study cautioning against extensive use of such tests since some may think a positive result implies immunity to COVID-19 although which markers indicate immunity to infection is still unknown.
The Houston survey program is designed to give scientists a better understanding of the spread of disease and may help provide insight into immunity.
The initiative includes two phases, the first of which began this week and will continue through Sept. 24. Phase two will launch in the winter of 2021 and include the retesting of participants.
Last week Turner also announced that the city’s positivity rate had fallen to 7.6 percent, but says the rate must be below 5 percent to justify reducing restrictions on community activity and school openings.
Although infection rates and hospitalizations have been declining since a July peak, Turner and Harris County officials continue to rate the county’s status as “Level 1, Severe.” They maintain that schools should remain closed for in-person instruction and that gatherings of any kind are still unsafe.
In recent press conferences with Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department, Turner has urged residents to be tested even if they are asymptomatic.
“Quite frankly, if you haven’t gotten tested, you’re being irresponsible by not going and getting tested,” Turner said at a recent press conference.
The CDC has recently issued revised guidelines asserting that asymptomatic individuals do not need to undergo COVID-19 testing. The CDC does suggest antibody testing is useful for surveillance and research, and “can provide insights into the transmission dynamic” among the general population.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.