News & Events

COVID-19: Testing Is Key

coronavirus test

Ramping up testing and contact tracing are vital in our continued effort to not only flatten the COVID-19 curve, but are also key indicators in the state’s gradual efforts to modify the stay-at-home order.

Governor Gavin Newsom started the COVID-19 Testing Task Force to significantly boost our state’s testing capacity. The task force’s priority is to ensure the state has enough capacity and supplies to administer a greater number of tests statewide. More than 80 new testing sites have been established in underserved communities, and Californians will soon be able to get tested when they pick up their prescriptions at some pharmacies across the state.

The task force is co-chaired by Blue Shield of California President and CEO Paul Markovich, and CalPERS gets regular updates from Blue Shield and members of the task force on their efforts.

Julia Logan, MD, MPH, from our Clinical Policy Programs section, touched upon the testing that’s now available. There are several types of tests, and each have different uses.

“The first one approved was the PCR test. This is the most widely used test, and tests for active infection,” Dr. Logan said during our most recent stakeholder update. “It is a nasal swab and can take several days for results. The other test for active infection is the antigen test. This test was FDA approved several days ago and has some advantages to the PCR test. It can be used for point-of-care testing—so testing in your doctor’s office, similar to a rapid flu test. Results are available within minutes. It is also less costly than PCR testing but has not been widely adopted as of yet.

“The third is the antibody test,” Dr. Logan continued. “This gives information about a possible past infection. This test usually becomes positive about two weeks after active infection begins. The antibody test is not being used widely at this point but is being offered in some areas if a person has had a positive PCR test and is interested in donating plasma, and its used in clinical settings for those who have a negative PCR test but have a highly suspicious clinical picture for positivity. We do not know right now how long immunity may last, and there is a lot of scientific debate about how long that may be. Other coronaviruses tend to give a few years of lasting immunity at least.”

CalPERS health members will not have to pay anything out of pocket for screening and testing of COVID-19. And there will be no copay or deductible costs to members who receive in-network treatment for COVID-19. CalPERS health members CalPERS and our health plans will cover these costs for our members through the end of June, at least.

Dr. Logan also touched upon what we’ve learned about the virus in the past few months, namely the role asymptomatic individuals have.

“Asymptomatic transmission drives at least half of all transmission events, and interestingly people are most infectious right before they become symptomatic,” she said. “It’s helpful to know this and understand this from an infection control perspective, and important to know this on a personal level as well.

“We have learned so much about the basic pathology of the virus, our immune response to the virus, and that children are not little adults, and their immune systems react much differently to this virus, and do not seem to have the lung and respiratory symptoms that adults do,” Dr. Logan continued.

That said, Dr. Logan noted there are plenty of unknowns.

“We are still learning how exactly the virus is transmitted—whether by respiratory droplets, aerosols, by touching infected objects, or a combination of all of these or by other additional means,” she said. “And we don’t know exactly what it will take to get to herd immunity, and herd immunity is the level of immunity in a population that is needed to stop the spread of the virus.”

The CalPERS team recognizes that the global pandemic resulting from the coronavirus is creating uncertainty and concern among our members. We want to reassure you that your benefits are safe, and we are fully operational. Despite the circumstances, CalPERS is here for you. Learn more on how we’re addressing COVID-19.

Update: This article was edited for clarity on May 29, 2020.