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Pool testing could be key to faster COVID-19 results

The FDA has approved Quest Diagnostics' request to use the testing technique, but the positivity rate remains too high in Texas for it to be effective.

HOUSTON — Long lines to get tested for COVID-19 and even longer wait times for the results are two national problems that keep getting worse. It's why the Food and Drug Administration gave Quest Diagnostics emergency authorization to do "pool testing."

So, what is pool testing?

Typically, labs run each test sample individually. But now, Quest is able to combine up to four samples into one test tube and test the mixed sample together for one result.

If it's negative, everyone in that batch is clear. But if the batch comes back positive, then each sample would need to be re-tested on its own to find who indeed is positive.

"Companies who pursue this need to be careful about their procedures," said Joe Petrosino, Chair of the Molecular Virology and Microbiology Department at Baylor College of Medicine.

Petrosino said pool testing isn't perfect and could dilute positive samples that may not be detected.

"You could get some false negatives," Petrosino said.

Pool testing could be useful in certain scenarios. It speeds up testing, stretches limited supplies further, reduces costs, and, most importantly, expands testing to millions more Americans who may be unknowingly spreading the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has said it could be a good tool for mass testing at schools or businesses to keep them open. Quest tells KHOU 11 News that they're running pool testing at labs in Virginia and Massachusetts, but not in Texas. At least not yet.

"With our numbers being so high, I don't anticipate them using pool testing for samples coming from this area," said Dr. David Persse, Houston's Public Health Authority.

Experts recommend pool testing when areas have less than a 10% positivity rate. Right now, Texas has about a 14% positivity rate and Houston is hovering around 25%.

"There's just too much virus spreading through the community and our positivity rate is way too high, so we need to focus on that," Persse said.

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