Austin Public Health is considering offering rapid antigen tests that detect active COVID-19 infections and provide results in around 15 minutes.
Like the genetic—or polymerase chain reaction—tests currently conducted by APH, antigen tests detect the presence of an active infection from a viral sample, such as saliva or tissue swabbed from the nostrils.
Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott made the announcement on Tuesday.
While antigen tests are marginally less sensitive than genetic tests, they are cheaper to produce, less invasive and provide much faster results—in minutes instead of days.
Some local entities, including Remedy and Texas MedClinic, already offer these tests, and the federal government announced last month that it would distribute rapid testing equipment to nursing homes around the country.
Genetic tests, on the other hand, must be sent to a lab for processing. Recent surges have led to increased demand—and delayed results. Slow turnaround times stymie efforts to contain active COVID-19 cases; by the time a patient learns of a positive result, they may have already recovered—and missed their chance to prevent infecting others.
Antigen testing could help fix this bottleneck.
"It's not quite as accurate as the regular [genetic] testing that we send off to labs, but it's probably good enough," Dr. Escott told county commissioners Tuesday. "So we can get a whole lot better control over this for future outbreaks than sending off tests that are going to take three or four or 10 days."
A case study
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first emergency use authorization for a rapid antigen test to the California-based Quidel Corporation on May 9.
Less than two weeks later, Texas MedClinic announced it would offer the Quidel test at 19 locations across Central Texas, including two in Austin.
The practice has worked with Quidel for nearly a decade and already used its equipment for rapid flu and strep tests, which meant it only needed FDA approval and test strips to get started.
Demand was immediate.
"Patients really like them," Chief Operating Officer Dr. David Gude told Austonia, adding that the long wait times associated with genetic tests were discouraging.
As of Monday, Texas MedClinic has conducted around 62,000 antigen tests, or around 60 to 75 a day at each of its locations.
"We're now able to do really more than double the amount of tests using the rapid antigen than we were able to do with the [genetic test]," Dr. Gude said.
At their peak in mid-June, Texas Med Clinic was conducting around 2,000 antigen tests a day. But the pace was unsustainable. While the clinics close at 11 p.m., staff would often stay until as late as 3 a.m. processing results. Hiring additional staff has been a challenge given the local competition.
Dr. Gude commended APH for considering antigen testing. Even though Texas MedClinic has seen a slight reduction in demand as the surge weakens, he thinks the rapid tests will prove useful in the weeks and months ahead, especially as college students return to campus and people gather over Labor Day weekend.
"I anticipate that it's going to be up and down until there's an effective vaccine, and I'm afraid that's going to be awhile."
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With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."