Q&A on COVID-19 Testing: Edward Desmond, Hawaii State Laboratories Division Administrator

Dr. Edward Desmond in the Hawaii State Laboratories Division
Dr. Edward Desmond in the Hawaii State Laboratories Division


Edward Desmond, Ph.D., lead administrator of the Hawaii State Laboratories Division, says that Hawaii’s public health and private sector laboratories have stepped up to establish and expand their capacities for testing. His lab conducts testing for the State’s environmental and public health programs. A microbiologist and 40-year veteran of managing public health and hospital laboratories, Dr. Desmond manages a 100-strong team, now largely dedicated to COVID-19-related work in Hawaii. The questions he is most often asked revolve around coronavirus testing, including “Who should get tested?” and “Why isn’t everyone tested?” Desmond sat down with us to answer a few of these questions, too.

Department of Health State Laboratories Division staff conducting tests
The Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division performing laboratory testing.

Are there any myths about COVID-19 testing you’d like to correct or demystify for the public?

“Yes. A couple. First, that everyone should be tested, which is untrue. Testing does not show whether someone has been exposed or is incubating an infection before becoming symptomatic. With limited resources, testing for the presence of the virus should be limited to symptomatic patients and, perhaps, to patients in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, all of whom are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”

And the second myth?

“That antibody tests – which are blood tests – are diagnostic tests, which is also untrue. When someone has COVID, antibodies may not develop for between five and 20 days after symptoms develop. A negative antibody test does not completely rule out that someone has the disease. A second limitation to antibody tests is the accuracy of most of them, which has not been thoroughly studied.”

What’s the current status of Abbott ID NOW™ COVID-19 rapid testing in Hawaii?

“Testing is underway with the 15 Abbott ID NOW™ instruments in Hawaii – two instruments each in Kauai, Maui and Hawaii counties, and nine on Oahu. The test kits needed to operate the instruments, however, are in limited supply. The State Laboratories Division is attempting to acquire as many Abbott ID NOW™ instruments as possible.”

What would you like Hawaii residents to know about in the COVID-19 battlefront?

“All of us staying home is accomplishing something. We appear to have ‘flattened the curve’ and kept the number of cases within the capabilities of Hawaii’s medical system to treat them, which will help lower the death rate here from this pandemic. That said, we all need to keep in mind that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time, perhaps until a successful vaccine is developed and deployed. Physical distancing and other changes in the ways we work and do business will need to be practiced long-term.”

Is there anything Hawaii residents can all be credited for in the war against the virus?

“Hawaii has one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the U.S. A great deal of credit for that goes to the people of Hawaii for following shutdown and physical distancing guidelines. There are difficult times ahead for all of us, with long-term restrictions on our freedom to do many of the things we love to do. But compliance with continuing measures will enable our economy to get back on its feet, moving us toward the lifestyles we all enjoy while, at the same time, protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”

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