MUSC says new COVID-19 screening method is safer, less invasive

Coronavirus

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Screening for the coronavirus just got less invasive and a little bit safer, according to health officials.

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is rolling out the first round of saliva testing this week. Instead of swabbing the nose, patients can now test for COVID-19 by simply spitting in a tube.

MUSC Health’s Dr. Steven Carroll says there are several reasons for developing a reliable saliva test.

While the nasopharyngeal (NP) test goes deep into the nasal cavity, the saliva test requires less personal protective equipment.

“Saliva’s got several advantages. First of all, it’s easier on the person that’s being tested. The second thing is, the person doing the testing doesn’t have to wear the very expensive and hot personal protective equipment that they’d normally have to wear with an NP swab,” Carroll said.

“The third thing is it takes less skill to collect saliva because all you’re doing is spitting in a tube,” he added.

Carroll hopes the ease of saliva testing will make more people willing to get tested if they believe they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“It’s safer because you don’t create the kind of aerosols that could potentially spread the virus to the person collecting the test as well as other people in the area who are also having specimens tested for collecting,” Carroll said. “So it pretty much protects everyone around you.”

Carroll says the new method has above 90 percent accuracy and underwent a rigorous validation process before getting approval.

“We’ve spent a lot of work ongoing to try and improve the test because early on it wasn’t clear that it was going to be as sensitive,” he said. “But the test is turning out to be very good. I wouldn’t let it be released at MUSC if I didn’t trust the test.”

MUSC is planning to start saliva testing on patients in Charleston, followed by patients in Florence and Lancaster before the method spreads nationwide.

“We’re doing the final validation. There are some things we have to do, like making sure the computer systems are set up properly to handle it. And it’s in the end stages, we expect it to be very soon,” Carroll said.

NP swabbing and saliva-based testing will both continue at MUSC. Some patients will still take the NP test while others will test using their saliva.

Carroll says both take about the same amount of time to process and one method will not replace the other for all patients.

“If we’re going to properly survey to make sure we know what’s happening with the virus infection rates in the community, it’s not going to be enough to be tested one time. You’re going to have to have people coming back in and being tested several times,” Carroll said.

“This is really critical in places where people are crowded like say, universities,” he added. “If you have a student body, you want to make sure you keep the instance of the virus in the student body low. Then what you’re going to want to do is repeat the testing every 10 to 14 days just to catch anyone who needs to quarantine to keep from spreading the virus further.”

MUSC Health is working on point-of-care “rapid” saliva-based testing, but it’s not yet available.

“The testing is something that’s reliable,” Carroll said. “It’s something that I would urge people to get if they have any concerns at all that they’ve been exposed to COVID. It’s something we can all do to actually keep the instance of this virus down in the community to keep everyone safe.”

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