Study Shows School-Aged Children Can Successfully Swab Themselves for COVID-19 Tests, But Is This Something That Can Help Short-Staffed Medical Laboratories?
Encouraging patients—even children—to be more directly involved in their own medical care may reduce the burden on healthcare workers and might even help those clinical laboratories struggling to hire enough phlebotomists to collect specimens
Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have concluded a study which found that school-aged children can successfully use a nasal swab to obtain their own SARS-CoV-2 test specimens. This may come as a surprise to hospital and clinical laboratory personnel who have performed nasal swabbing for COVID-19 tests. Some people, adults included, find the procedure so uncomfortable it brings tears.
And yet, after being shown a 90-second how-to video and given a handout with written instructions and pictures, 197 Atlanta children who had COVID-19 symptoms between July and August of 2021 performed their own self-swabbing. A healthcare worker then collected a second swabbed sample. All samples were submitted to a clinical laboratory for PCR analysis.
The Emory study provides another example of how the healthcare system is engaging patients to be directly involved in their own medical care. Results of the study could positively impact clinical laboratories facing a shortage of personnel, as well as schools where children have to take repeated COVID-19 tests with the assistance of trained professionals.
The Emory researchers published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), titled, “Concordance of SARS-CoV-2 Results in Self-collected Nasal Swabs vs Swabs Collected by Health Care Workers in Children and Adolescents.”
In a study with 197 school-age children, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found that children could self-swab themselves for COVID-19 testing after watching a 90-second instructional video. Clinical laboratory leaders who are short on personnel may find these results intriguing. (Photo copyright: Emory University.)
How Did the Children Do?
The self-collected swabs and those collected by a healthcare worker agreed 97.8% of the time for a positive result and 98.1% of the time for a negative result. The analysis showed that both collection methods identified the 44% of symptomatic kids who were positive for COVID-19.
“Seeing how closely the results line up between the children and trained healthcare workers is a strong indicator that these age groups are fully capable of swabbing themselves if given proper instruction,” said Jesse Waggoner, MD, an Assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases with the Emory University School of Medicine and one of the lead authors on the study, in an Emory University press release.
A higher percentage of children age eight and under needed assistance, such as more instruction before correctly completing self-collection—21.8% compared to 6.1% for children older—but SARS-CoV-2 detection among the two age groups did not differ.
Does FDA Approve of Self-Swabbing?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not authorized COVID-19 tests that include self-swabbing by children under age 14. However, data from the Emory study, published in JAMA, is now available to test manufacturers seeking authorization for pediatric self-collection.
“Pediatric self-swabbing will support expanded testing access and should make it even easier to test school age populations with fewer resources,” said Tim Stenzel, MD, PhD, Director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics at the FDA, in the Emory statement. “This study furthers our knowledge of test accuracy with these types of samples and provides test manufacturers with data to support their EUA (Emergency Use Authorization) requests to the FDA.”
Self-swabbing versus Clinical Laboratory Worker
While it has been longstanding medical practice to have healthcare workers collect samples for respiratory tract infection testing, the Emory researchers suggest that allowing children to collect their own COVID-19 samples could be one way to reduce the burden of a shortage of healthcare workers.
The researchers also believe pediatric self-swabbing would expand access to diagnostic tests and make it easier to test school-age populations.
“Every minute of a healthcare worker’s time is at a premium,” said senior study author Wilbur Lam, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Biomedical Engineering, Emory University and Georgia Tech, in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) press release. “Why not allow a kid to self-swab? It’s a win-win! They would rather do it themselves and it frees up the healthcare worker to do other things,” he added.
In 2020, a Stanford University School of Medicine study published in JAMA showed test samples collected by adults who swabbed their own nasal passages were as accurate as those collected by healthcare workers. This study involved 30 participants who had previously tested positive for COVID-19.
Though the Emory University and Stamford University studies were small, they agreed in their findings which is significant. Clinical laboratory executives and pathologists should expect this trend toward direct-to-consumer and other forms of self-testing to continue, even among young patients.
—Andrea Downing Peck