Cases of COVID-19 in Washoe County are likely 5 times higher than reported cases

This story has been updated to include comments and details from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Washoe County Health District.

The number of people in Washoe County with coronavirus is likely thousands more than what is being reported. 

That is just one of the findings coming out of an antibody study done by the Washoe County Health District and the University of Nevada, Reno.

COVID-19 drive-thru testing is conducted at the St. Marys Urgent Care facility in West Reno on March 31, 2020.

The study gives insight into how prevalent COVID-19 was compared to positive test results that were being reported in June. 

Read more: Dr. Mark Pandori is working to uncover secrets of COVID-19’s spread in Nevada

The study took blood samples from 234 adults from a random group of 1,270 households from 128 census blocks in Washoe County.  The tests were done on June 9 and 10 when the number of reported cases was 1,832.

According to the study, the number of people infected was as much as five times higher, meaning more than 8,200 people in the general population were likely infected. 

Of the 234 people who were randomly chosen, six were found to have COVID-19 antibodies. Initial findings found that of those six, only one reported having symptoms.  Using weighted values to the people tested based on age, sex and race, health officials said there are as many as five times as many people infected as were reported.

It is the first study of its kind in Nevada and one of few done across the country, according to Wei Yang, a UNR professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and environmental health.

“We tried to capture any potential risk factors that will help us,” Yang said of asking participants to fill out a long form. He said researchers will do a deeper analysis of the results to study risk factors, job, travel or if symptoms were present.

Antibodies give insight into who may have been infected. Unlike the COVID-19 test, which can tell what is happening in real time, antibody testing lets you look back at what has happened.

“Antibody testing from a scientific perspective is a great proposition,” Dr. Mark Pandori, who runs the Nevada State Lab, told the Reno Gazette Journal in June. Pandori and his team of researchers did the testing for the study. It’s just one of a few similar studies being run at the lab. “It affords us to do something we rarely get to do. You get to look back in time.”  

What the results also show is that the percentage of people dying from COVID-19 is likely much less than what health experts estimated. 

In June when the number of cases was estimated at around 1,800, there were 67 deaths, giving an approximate fatality rate closer to 4 percent.  With more than 8,000 likely infected it shows that the virus is killing fewer than 1 percent. 

Heather Kerwin, the epidemiology program manager at the health district, said the results show that there were infections and transmission chains completely missed. 

“We know that in our community and across the nation, with all infectious diseases, that you are really only looking at the tip of the iceberg,” Kerwin said. 

Kerwin said the results can be used to see who is being missed in testing. 

Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal