The Special Session: Fund and execute a serological study of COVID

This is part of our series “The Special Session” on health policy ideas for states as they respond to COVID-19.


As legislatures return to session to begin thinking through a policy and fiscal response to COVID-19, one of the first things that should occur is something like an “after action report.” In other words, a clear-eyed assessment of what our communities have just gone through will help us determine clear-eyed policy to move us forward.

Political ideology can sometimes get in the way of bi-partisan agreement on what constitutes a fact or reality. That makes good, solid data even more important as fiscal and policy discussions ensue.

One of the most important things we can do as we collectively emerge from this first wave of COVID is to find out how widespread the disease was.

The best way to do that is to fund and conduct a serological study or studies in your state. A serological study will test a large random sample of residents and look for the antibodies that result when an individual gets sick. The presence of the antibodies tells you if the person was COVID+ at some point over the last number of months.

However, it appears humans don’t hold coronavirus antibodies in their system for too long. We may only retain antibodies for two months until they start to degrade in our system. So, testing results may begin to lose integrity as we move farther into the future.

Consequently, waiting until the next economic rebound to conduct this test likely isn’t an option.

If we are ever going to know the scope of the infection of this pandemic – and as a result its real mortality rate – we need to conduct these antibody tests this summer and fall.

Some states are particularly well-suited for this. Santa Clara County in California has already conducted such a study. A senior Republican legislator in Washington State has started calling for one there, too, as a result of the academic, philanthropic and research capabilities there.


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States like Hawaii, Alaska or Arizona have some of the key pieces in place. They can backfill those quickly to be able to pull off a large test. But, the success starts with the legislature prioritizing the work via funding in the upcoming special session.

Germany, a nation of 83 million, is looking to conduct such a study on about 100,000 residents.

In Washington State, that might mean a study of 10,000. In Alaska, it would look like about 1,000 residents to be comparable. Texas might want to conduct 30,000 tests to meet that German standard.

Or, each state could do more.

The limiting factors here are first time and then money. The other resources can fall into place.

These costs aren’t big costs, either. Think in the $40-$80 range per test, though I expect this number to fall as scale increases.

The question is more about political will.

That’s something that has been in question on the national stage. But, this is a relatively straightforward task the legislatures can do to continue to lead on the US COVID response.