Speed Test

A health care worker takes a sample for a Covid-19 PCR test during a drive-through testing clinic in 2020. PCR testing has declined from over 600 tests per week in January to around 400 a week in April.

Covid-19 vaccinations are rising and testing numbers in Monterey County have fallen dramatically, almost in sync. That trend hasn’t deterred Sameer Bakhda, an ER doctor at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, from his quest to make Covid-19 testing faster, easier and more accessible to the widest number of people through the use of antigen, or rapid tests. It’s led him to talk to anyone who will listen, from other medical professionals to elected officials to the Covid-19 Collaborative being coordinated by the Community Foundation for Monterey County, and even recently to a group of giggling kindergartners amused as he demonstrated how to insert swabs into the lower part of their nasal passages.

“I’ve been on this rapid testing crusade for the better part of the last year,” Bakhda says. He calls the United States’ failure to embrace testing as many people as possible from the beginning – including those who could be asymptomatic – “one of the original sins’’ of the pandemic. He’s advocating for combining serial rapid testing – testing every few days – with vaccinations, mask wearing and other measures to end the pandemic. It could potentially save lives by getting those at higher risk into treatment earlier.

Rapid tests look for the virus in samples taken from the nose or throat and can produce a result in 15 minutes. It differs from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the kind used by health departments, which detects the virus’ RNA and can take 48 hours or longer to get results, although those results are considered more accurate. It’s also a cumbersome process that costs more – PCR tests cost between $100-$120 while rapid tests cost $20-$30. (The cost is covered by health insurance or the government.)With a positive test, one could immediately isolate. There are some false positives, which requires that people follow up with a PCR test.

Bakhda sees rapid testing as the answer to opening up schools, workplaces and entertainment venues. The kindergartners he spoke to were at the International School in Seaside, which Bakhda’s children attend and where he serves as a board member. He convinced the school to adopt serial rapid testing of all staff and students as a way to return to in-person instruction. It turns out they were just steps ahead of the state, which is looking to utilize the tests in schools and last month distributed 3 million free rapid tests to some districts to assist in reopening.

Bringing more rapid testing to Monterey County is now one focus of the Testing Workgroup of the Covid-19 Collaborative, says group coordinator Kim Stemler. “We don’t want a variant to emerge in this community and shut us down again. The way we stay open is having a strategy of testing and vaccinations,” she says.

In addition to his other titles, Bakhda recently added “entrepreneur” to the list. He and another CHOMP doctor, Michelle Kalinski, are launching a company called Lightspeed Tests, to produce and distribute antigen tests.

“We would like to put ourselves out of business,” he says.

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