A Windber research program is expanding to help address questions nagging scientists and doctors studying the COVID-19 pandemic.

The antibody testing project is a collaboration of Chan Soon Shiong Medical Center at Windber and Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine.

At a Thursday morning press briefing to promote the state’s COVID-19 testing program, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine explained the differences between COVID-19 tests, including the antibody test that is being studied in Windber.

Unlike the diagnostic testing that has confirmed more than 100,000 COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, the antibody tests show previous exposure to the virus, Levine explained.

“Those are the tests of our immune response to the virus,” Levine said. “The clinical utility of the antibody test for each individual is not really clear yet. We don’t know as much about the antibodies as we’d like to.”

The antibodies are produced by the immune system to fight the virus, but scientists still don’t know how long they last or how well they protect against future infections, Levine said.

Those are the questions that Windber is studying, said Stella Somiari, senior director of the molecular medicine institute.

Participants are being tested every three months for at least a year to track the antibodies, she said Thursday during a press event at Windber.

“Maybe some negatives will become positives,” Somiari said.

“Do they still have that positive after three months? We want to understand how long this immunity lasts.”

Windber’s research project began in May with testing of hospital employees who volunteered. More than 200 have been tested.

On Thursday, Windber’s leaders announced the program is expanding to cancer patients through the hospital’s Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.

Taunia Oechslin Girls Night Out Foundation is funding the tests for cancer patients through Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at the hospital.

Erin Goins, director of the Murtha center, said the initiative fits well with the Oechslin organization’s mission of helping breast cancer patients.

“That’s why they raise so much money every year for our patients,” Goins said. “If we can go ahead and do a study with our breast cancer patients, absolutely, it’s for the patients. That’s what they’re all about.”

Levine said the antibody test could provide information in population-based studies, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing some research in that area.

Somiari said Windber is not currently part of the CDC’s work, but expects future collaborations.

“I think at some point, we all have to talk,” she said. “The data has to all come together so we can talk and compare.”

The antibody testing will not replace the diagnostic testing, known as the polymerase chain reaction or PCR test, Levine stressed. The diagnostic tests looks for active coronavirus DNA in the patient’s respiratory system.

Until a vaccine or a cure is developed, PCR testing will remain key in controlling the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf said at the Thursday morning briefing.

“We are continuing to build our testing capacity,” Wolf said.

“We need to do that because we know that rapidly identifying and isolating people who have been infected by COVID-19 is a key part of reducing the spread of this deadly disease.”

He recognized Walmart’s network of 13 testing sites, primarily in rural areas of the state.

“Testing is key,” Wolf said.

“The issue is not just how many tests you have the capacity to do, it’s how accessible those tests are – how easily people can get to them.”

Statewide testing capacity has expanded from less than 8,000 tests a day in April to an average of almost 22,000 a day, currently. Wolf said the capacity allows for testing of about 4% of the state population each month.

“Here in Pennsylvania, we are doing what we can – everything we can – to expand our testing capacity, and get test results in the hands of the patients as quickly as possible.”

Wolf said state officials are pressing the federal government to enable commercial labs to turn around test results more quickly.

Wolf said the labs may be giving a higher priority to states with more significant surges, noting Pennsylania’s COVID-19 cases have stabilized, somewhat.

Cambria County adds 10 new cases

Thursday’s report showed the rolling seven-day average dropped for the eighth consecutive day to an average of 777 new cases a day. The seven-day average climbed through most of July, peaking at 974 cases a day on July 29.

Cambria, Blair and Indiana counties each showed double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases on Thursday, with 807 new cases statewide, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported.

The state also reported 38 additional deaths, bringing the state totals to 116,521 confirmed cases and 7,282 deaths related to COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania in March.

Cambria County’s 10 new cases bring its COVID-19 totals to 322 cases and three deaths.

It was the county’s second consecutive double-digit report, apparently driven by new cases at the federal prison in Loretto. The Bureau of Prisons website on Thursday reported 40 cases among inmates, up from 31 cases on Wednesday and 12 on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in the region:

• Somerset had no new cases and remains at 127 cases and three deaths.

• Blair County added 14 cases to reach 255 cases and three deaths.

• Indiana County also added 14 cases to reach 297 cases and six deaths.

• Bedford County added two cases to reach 136 cases and four deaths.

• Clearfield County added six cases to reach 150 cases and no deaths.

• Westmoreland County added nine cases to reach 1,484 cases and 46 deaths.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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