Mike Nathe had a lingering cough in April.

The Bismarck Funeral Home and Crematory owner felt well when visiting with Metro Area Ambulance owner Todd Porter over business, but Porter encouraged him to take a finger stick test for COVID-19 antibodies, which he had for testing paramedics.

“I took it and came up positive,” said Nathe, who figures he was sick with a mild case of COVID-19 in late February, when he lost his senses of taste and smell after returning from a business trip in Las Vegas.

A blood donation screening process in June confirmed it again: He had the antibodies.

North Dakota last spring secured 178,000 COVID-19 serology tests costing $3.68 million. The antibody tests come in forms of rapid-test finger pricks and lab-tested blood draws.

State Lab Director Dr. Christie Massen said the tests generally are “a great tool to look at what has happened in the state,” such as determining the extent of an outbreak in a group or setting, or confirming a person’s possible past infection. But tests can have false positives, and antibodies aren’t a guarantee against reinfection or waning immunity. Many variables complicate serology, Massen said.

“From a diagnostic perspective, there’s conflicting opinions about its usefulness ... but definitely from the research and epidemiological side of things, it definitely has its benefits,” she said. “As we get later on through this pandemic, I definitely think it can help people learn if they had the virus ... how long ago did they maybe have it, but I think there’s still a lot to be learned and I think some of this serology can help try to answer some of those questions about how many people truly had the infection in North Dakota.”

It’s not clear who all has been administered the serology tests. State Department of Health spokeswoman Nicole Peske said “we’ve done targeted events with certain populations where the positivity rating is high.” Massen said the state has worked with “outside partners” such as North Dakota State University to see how the testing kits work.

When asked Wednesday for an update on the state’s serology testing, Gov. Doug Burgum said his administration would provide one this week.

Health officials as of Thursday had administered and reported results of 6,563 antibody blood draw tests, with 238 detecting antibodies.

Earlier this month, state corrections staff took part in voluntary antibody blood draw testing. Massen said the prison setting offers a look at a “very controlled group” and helps see how the tests perform.

Sweeping measures against coronavirus deployed in North Dakota prisons

Antibody testing also could help change people’s approach to the pandemic if they believe they were previously sick but then test negative for antibodies, Massen said. They might start wearing a mask or being more cautious in public.

Nathe said he and his funeral home staff wear masks and use hand sanitizer “for the protection of the people that we serve.”

“Even though I may have the antibodies, I still do it, we all still do it, and just for their safety,” he said.

He gave five units of plasma on Monday at Vitalant blood service. Convalescent plasma has emerged as a potential treatment for COVID-19, to help patients’ immune systems fight the respiratory disease, though no approved treatment yet exists.

All successful Vitalant blood donations are tested for COVID-19 antibodies, for positive donors to decide if they want to give their plasma, Vitalant North Division Marketing and Communications Manager Tesia Hummer said. BioLife Plasma in Bismarck also accepts COVID-19 plasma donations.

“Right now there is a critical need for convalescent plasma, especially as we see COVID cases continue to rise,” Hummer said.

Drop in blood donations worry health officials amid virus outbreak

CHI St. Alexius treats 3 COVID-19 patients with plasma

Sanford Health in Bismarck as of Thursday had treated 11 patients with convalescent plasma, spokesman Jon Berg said.

The health care system on Thursday announced a free antibody study in the Dakotas and Minnesota for up to 3,000 Sanford Health and Good Samaritan Society employees who meet certain criteria. The volunteers will have their blood drawn seven times over the next year to detect COVID-19 antibodies.

CHI St. Alexius Health in Bismarck offers COVID-19 serology testing at clinicians’ discretion. As of Wednesday, 16 coronavirus patients had been treated with convalescent plasma at the hospital, Marketing Coordinator Chelsey Kralicek said.

Nathe said everything he has done ties back to his funeral home.

“I’ve seen the devastating and painful effects that COVID has had on these families, who have suffered COVID deaths, and if I can be of help in any way, I’m going to try to help and contribute with no hesitation,” he said. “I’m just glad I got a chance to help.”

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