STERNBERG: What’s All This Testing About?


What’s All This

Testing About?


At his Sunday, April 19, press conference, Governor Cuomo reported his 22-year-old daughter had asked him, “What’s all this testing about?” He seemed to be a little surprised by the question.

He said he thought he was explaining this well during his previous press conferences but realized he had not been getting his points across to everybody. He went over this again.

Richard Sternberg, a retired Bassett Hospital orthopedic surgeon, has agreed to provide his professional perspective while the coronavirus threat continues. Dr. Sternberg, who is also a village trustee, resides in Cooperstown.

I will try to explain the different types of tests, roughly how they work, what their purposes are, and how they help us make decisions about what to do next.

Up until recently, Governor Cuomo has primarily been talking about the test to determine who actively had the novel coronavirus. He has also been talking about obtaining the testing equipment and getting the chemicals necessary to do the tests.

On Sunday, though, he was also talking about a different test, an antibody test which would tell us who is immune to the virus, and he explained how this is going to be rolled out in New York State, with 3,000 random samples to be taken over the next week or so.

These tests look for two very different things.

One, the test that has been primarily talked about for weeks looks to see who actively has the virus.

Theoretically, once a person recovers, or if he or she has not been symptomatic once the body clears the virus, this test comes back negative.

This test can only show who has COVID-19 and thus is currently infectious, but it can’t tell you anything about whether a person had COVID-19 and is now relatively immune.

This test looks specifically for RNA, the genetic material of the coronavirus. Different manufacturers make this type of test. While the different companies’ tests are slightly different, they basically all work the same way.

The best simple but complete explanation may be obtained by Googling “here’s how coronavirus test works.”

Two, more recently, a test has been developed that looks for people who have had the disease. This distinction is important.

The best way we are going to safely open up the economy is to know what percentage of the population has recovered from the disease and is now relatively immune – and where possible, specifically who is immune.

These people could now return to normal activities and safely go back to work.

This test works by looking for antibodies to the virus in a person’s blood.

An antibody is a large protein produced mainly by a type of white blood cell. It is used by the defensive or immune system of the body to neutralize bacteria and viruses.

To make informed decisions, we should know who has the disease, who had the disease, who never had the disease, and what proportion of the population each group makes up.

While it may not seem intuitive, using the science of statistics, it can be determined by doing random testing of a small but significant number of people in a population what these numbers probably are.

The bigger the proportion of a population that is tested, the more highly confident we can be in the percentages determined and the more accurate are our predictions.

Without good testing we are not going to have any idea what the actual infection rate is and how quickly immunity is accumulating in the population. Once we know all this good, safe, informed decisions can be made on how to proceed with getting back toward normal.


If you would like me to go over this and other related topics please contact me through the Freeman’s Journal.


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