Health authorities are wary of COVID-19 antibody tests’ reliability.

WESTFIELD, NJ — With school buildings closed for the rest of the academic year and a mounting need to continue tracing contacts of people infected with COVID-19, the regional health department is looking to school nurses for assistance.

The Westfield Regional Health Department, which serves eight towns, anticipates hiring 30 to 35 people to assist with contact tracing, Director Megan Avallone told the Board of Health Monday. Avallone said the department has reached out to schools in Summit and is beginning to reach out to schools in its other municipalities, including Westfield, for school nurses.

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“People really trust school nurses,” Avallone said. “While they may be leery of what government is telling them or a health department official, people listen to a school nurse.”

In Westfield, the health director reported that through April 30 the health department had identified and investigated 215 COVID-19 cases, including 48 associated with long-term care facilities. The COVID-19 patients range in age from 13 to 99, Avallone said.

Of those cases, 37 people had been hospitalized and 33 died, she said. Of the deaths, 16 were associated with long-term care facilities, Avallone said. Of the people from Westfield to test positive for the virus, 35 reported self-recoveries, she said.

“There’s no set standard as to what makes someone recovered and what doesn’t, but some individuals have self-reported to us that they feel completely recovered,” Avallone said.

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Still, only 2% of Union County’s population has been tested for the virus, she said. It is a number that, Avallone said, will need to increase and as it does so will the need for the health department to trace known contacts of people with the virus.

“We’re well aware that we are going to need a staff to really help do this contact tracing the way that it needs to be done,” she said.

The health department’s existing staff, Avallone said, is comprised of 10 people covering the eight municipalities comprising more than 100,000 people.

“We’re past 1,100 cases in six weeks,” she said. “It’s insane that we were able to complete that number of investigations.”

The contact tracing involves extensive phone conversations with people impacted and often directing them to other agencies and resources where they can find the help they need, Avallone said.

“My staff have been working tirelessly to really connect these people to where they need to go,” she said.

Contact tracing continues as the health department also receives results from tests that could indicate if people have developed antibodies to the virus. They are results, the health director said, officials cannot use for medical decisions.

“We’re not sure how accurate these tests are,” Avallone said. “What we’re seeing is at least some of the tests can cross react with seasonal coronavirus.”

The concern officials at meeting held by video conference discussed is that such tests can yield false positives for antibodies.

“We don’t want anyone to make a decision that could be harmful to them or their family,” Avallone said.

The CDC reports that an antibody test may not be able to show if you have a current infection because it can take one to three weeks after an infection to make antibodies.

“We do not know yet if having antibodies to the virus can protect someone from getting infected with the virus again, or how long that protection might last,” the CDC states.

Email Matt Kadosh at | Twitter: @MattKadosh

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