What a $12 million local COVID testing infusion will – and won’t – do

By Updated: May 21, 2020 4:25 PM CT | Published: May 21, 2020 4:05 PM CT
<strong>Medical assistant Jasmine King swabs a drive-thru patient as staff members from Christ Community Health Services administer COVID-19 tests at a tent behind the South Memphis clinic on March 21.</strong> (Daily Memphian file)

Medical assistant Jasmine King swabs a drive-thru patient as staff members from Christ Community Health Services administer COVID-19 tests at a tent behind the South Memphis clinic on March 21. (Daily Memphian file)

A $12 million infusion from the city toward a better coordinated COVID-19 testing effort isn’t part of a national testing strategy known as “pooling,” but it does represent part of a broader push that envisions such testing, officials say.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland took his $12 million testing proposal to the City Council earlier this week. The money would come from the city’s $133.6 million share of federal CARES Act funding to be used by the end of the calendar year.

Strickland, in his presentation to the council, didn’t offer specifics on exactly how the money would be used. He said simply that society has to increase the amount of testing being done for the virus. He echoed what others, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, have said about increased testing.

Quoting Alexander, in fact, Strickland said testing needs to include regular testing over time and not just a one-and-done approach.

But what the $12 million from the city will not do – at least for now – is allow the city to get into what Dr. Manoj Jain, the infectious disease expert who advises the Memphis/Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force, says is a more ambitious and different method of getting more tests done faster.

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“Pooling” is a technique used with HIV and tuberculosis, as well as other diseases, that involves testing those who don’t have symptoms. The samples are pooled for a test called PCR – polymerase chain reaction – currently used in some local testing.

It can pick up the smaller viral particles on a swab. With that, samples from 100 people at a time can be divided into 10 batches.

If one batch is positive, the samples are tested individually to identify those infected within the group of 10. If all of the samples in a batch come from the same setting or workplace, employers can work with public health officials as those identified with the virus are quarantined and contact tracing begins.

The method, which has been validated in a research setting, can scale up test capacity and lower the cost of testing with results within 24 hours.

A larger capacity and lower cost makes regular testing of the same people several times more feasible.

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Jain and other health experts have said they envision scenarios where such testing could be used to test employees and students regularly, such as testing restaurant or grocery store workers weekly through a self-administered nasal swab that the employer would then send in for testing.  It would also include first responders and others working on the front lines of the pandemic response.

Jain wasn’t familiar with any numbers on who or how many people might be tested locally with the $12 million infusion from the city. 

He and former U.S. senator Bill Frist of Nashville, who is also a physician, recently advocated for and pushed for the further reach to the pooling form of testing.

Shelby County health officer Dr. Bruce Randolph said at the Thursday, May 21, daily briefing of the local COVID Task Force that the basic testing underway now locally is labor- intensive. Helping in that regard is likely where much of the city funding will go, he said.

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“The thing about testing is testing doesn’t occur without people,” Randolph said. “In order to do more testing, you’ve got to have more people who can collect the specimens and run the tests. All those resources will help in that endeavor.”

Jain believes pooling ultimately will make testing “the road to recovery” – not only for those with the virus but also for a society seeking to return to something approaching normalcy. 

“It tells us where we are with the virus at that moment in real time. It is safety,” he said. “It’s reassurance that if I’m going to work that others are also not going to infect me and I won’t infect them. It’s multiple areas, and I would say it’s the best tool we have beyond the preventive measures. Testing is a better tool than the temperature screening and the questioning.”

Jain said that kind of reassurance is needed because “this virus is so stealthy in its ways and it is asymptomatic transmission. Anyone could be infected.”

“Currently,” Jain said, “the basis (for testing) is anyone who is sick gets tested. But then also, those who are asymptotic who are not having an illness. And we are seeing that health care workers, nursing home workers, front line workers’ – if we begin to do large-scale testing with that population, then that will be very useful.”

All agree, though, that any kind of testing has to be part of a broader, long-term campaign that includes testing as a regular way of life along with social distancing.


COVID-19 testing Jim Strickland Dr. Bruce Randolph Dr. Manoj Jain Lamar Alexander
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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