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State health department conducts antibody testing in East Avenue Wegmans

A scanning electron micrograph shows a cell infected with coronavirus particles isolated from a patient sample.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
A scanning electron micrograph shows a cell infected with coronavirus particles isolated from a patient sample.

The New York state health department has been testing shoppers at the East Avenue Wegmans store as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of the novel coronavirus in New York.

The Rochester Wegmans is one of “approximately 20” grocery stores across the state where the health department said it’s collecting blood samples from volunteers to see if they have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

The health department said it will collect samples from about 150 people at each testing site.

Swab tests for the coronavirus, which Monroe County and New York state have been using to diagnose COVID-19 cases, can only discern whether a person is currently infected with the virus, not whether they have recovered from a past infection.

As the state begins planning to lift some restrictions on daily life, knowing how many people have already been exposed to the virus and could be immune to it will be important, the health department said. A growing body of literature indicates that many coronavirus infections don’t result in any noticeable symptoms.

Still, there are limitations: It’s not clear whether, or to what extent, having the antibodies that the state is looking for in this blood test indicates immunity to the virus.

The state health department was tight-lipped about precisely how many grocery stores were part of its testing effort or where they were. “The goal is to get a random sample of New Yorkers and not to drive large crowds to any specific location during this challenging time,” a spokesperson said.

Neither the state nor the Monroe County health departments answered questions about whether any other grocery stores in the county were part of the initiative.

At the East Avenue Wegmans, about five health department nurses asked both customers and employees if they wanted to participate in the tests. Those who did were shepherded into the store’s cafe, pricked in the finger to draw blood, and told to expect results in a day or two.

The state health department did not immediately respond to questions about whether testing supplies had been exhausted, but said in an email that staff “will continue testing as long as the testing site is open and supplies are sufficient.”

A Wegmans spokesperson said the health department had asked the grocery chain for permission to conduct the tests in five of its stores on Sunday and Monday, but no such request was received for Tuesday.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.