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Houston Health Department Launches COVID-19 Antibody Testing Survey

The goal is to better understand how many people in the city have previously had COVID-19.

A lab assistant holds a blood sample to be tested for COVID-19 antibodies at Principle Health Systems and SynerGene Laboratory, in Houston. The Houston Health Department is now rolling out its own antibody testing survey, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

The Houston Health Department is launching an antibody testing program to better understand how many people in the city have previously had COVID-19.

"This is not a test for an acute infection, this is a test to see if sometime in the past you were infected," Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse said at a press conference Wednesday. "As we move forward, we need to know this information to get an idea of what the virus is doing in our community so we can get ahead and control it."

Starting next week, teams from the health department and fire department paramedics will visit randomly selected homes across the city, and ask them to answer survey questions and give a blood sample. The goal is to identify those who have been infected in the past.

"We're looking for not only how many people out there have the presence of an antibody, which means their body's generated mechanisms to fight the virus, but also what that level of the antibody is," said Dr. Loren Hopkins with the Houston Health Department.

She said over time the levels of those antibodies may decrease, so the department will be following up with people in January to test them again and see if the antibodies still exist in their bodies. There will also be a second set of people tested later on.

Health officials said if your household is selected for the survey someone from the health department will show up at your door wearing a "Better Together" t-shirt. Persse emphasized that their survey doesn't include any questions about your social security number or bank account information.

"We will ask if you’ve had signs and symptoms of COVID; if you’ve been exposed to anyone that you know that’s had COVID, things along those lines," he said.

The survey is being carried out in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

Daily positive cases in Houston steadily decreased in August. And the rate of people testing positive has dropped to 7.8% — at one point in July it reached 25%. But officials caution there's still more work to be done and that the goal is to get the positivity rate to 5% or below.

"This is not the moment for people to think that we have reached our goals because we have not," said Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Turner also said some Houston hospitals are reactivating their surge plans to help create space for more patients.

“For a week or two, the hospitals, TMC, they were operating simply within phase 1, in ICU beds — they were not in Phase 2,” he said. “As of this morning’s report, they have slipped back to phase two.”

The mayor did not say if COVID-19 patients directly caused this need to move to create more beds. Harris County hospitals collectively have reported under 300 coronavirus patients in their ICUs for six straight days now. There were as many as 841 patients with the virus in intensive care at one point in mid-July.

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