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Researchers Turn to Pool Testing for Efficient Tracking of Coronavirus Outbreaks

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- In California, the new surge in COVID-19 cases is causing alarm.

"Every day we have record-breaking highs and that means the pandemic is far from over," said internal medicine physician Maja Artandi of Stanford Healthcare.

On Friday, Gov. Newsom addressed a possible change in testing strategy to something called group- or "pool" testing.

"You see this at blood banks, they do this," he pointed out.

The idea: samples taken from different people's nasal swabs are combined -- pooled -- into one large sample then tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

"If that pooled sample comes back negative then you alert everybody that their tests will come back negative. If it comes back positive you have to alert everybody that they might have been that individual," the governor explained.

If the batch is positive then the whole group gets tested individually to see who is carrying the virus.

With community spread, it's an efficIent way to more quickly pinpoint where the virus is incubating within cities and larger regions.

"If the number of tests that you have are actually limiting you then it's a very useful technique that's been used for 60, 70 years," said Dr. Chris Pilcher of UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital.

Dr. Pilcher is a physician in the department of medicine and he specializes in HIV, infectious diseases and global medicine.

Dr. Pilcher just published a paper on pool testing and SARS-CoV-2. He found that, while the method does produce some false negatives, it generally works well.

"We showed that -- given what we know now about coronavirus infections -- it seems like the benefits are going to greatly outweigh the loss of detection," Dr. Pilcher said.

In addition to getting a new grip on the virus, doctors hope everyone gets a grip on remembering what to do.

"Please wear a mask, wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizers and try to do activities outdoors" said Dr. Artandi. She added not to forget to practice proper social distancing.

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