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Detection dogs show promise sniffing out COVID

  • VIDEO COURTESY THE QUEEN'S MEDICAL CENTER

    Specially trained dogs are learning to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans.

  • ASSISTANCE DOGS OF HAWAII
                                Tess detects whether samples have the COVID-19 scent.

    ASSISTANCE DOGS OF HAWAII

    Tess detects whether samples have the COVID-19 scent.

The number of daily new coronavirus cases in Hawaii on Thursday increased 12.7% from the previous day as the state continues to investigate a cluster associated with hospital con­struction on Molokai.

The results of a research study, meanwhile, show promise that detection dogs potentially could assist the state in its battle against COVID-19.

The state Department of Health on Thursday reported 80 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 35,665 cases. No new coronavirus-related fatalities were reported, keeping the state’s death toll at 492.

State health officials began counting probable infections Wednesday, resulting in a bump up of the state’s total coronavirus case count. Probable infections include people who never received a confirmatory test but are believed to have had the virus because of known exposure and symptoms or a positive antigen test.

“We actually anticipate seeing more antigen testing as time goes on,” said acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble during a DOH “Weekly Dose” conversation. “We’re seeing a lot of change and development in testing technologies throughout the pandemic, and probable cases as determined by antigen tests is something that’s becoming a more common practice. So it’s important for us to be able to capture what’s actually going on with the COVID pandemic, and a complete picture of that includes these probable cases.”

By island, Oahu had 61 new cases; Hawaii island, two; Maui, seven; and Molokai, nine; while Kauai and Lanai had none. One Hawaii resident was diagnosed out of state.

On Molokai there are now 19 coronavirus cases associated with a hospital construction worker who tested positive May 10, according to officials, along with five from a related restaurant cluster.

At least five additional construction workers, one hospital employee and 10 of their close contacts have since tested positive or have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Health officials said the cluster is expected to increase due to wider community transmission.

Although workers reported using masks, officials said there is growing evidence the risk of exposure might have been in social settings and that vaccinations would have prevented the cluster.

More than 1.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in the state as of Thursday, an increase of more than 11,000 from the previous day.

The Queen’s Health Systems is offering Pfizer vaccines at a pop-up clinic at Mililani High School today for residents ages 12 and up, with no appointments necessary.

On Thursday, Maureen Maurer, executive director of Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, announced promising results of a research study underway with The Queen’s Medical Center that teaches dogs to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in people.

Tess, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever, is screening incoming surgery patients at The Queen’s Medical Center who also receive mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to determine whether they have COVID-19.

Tess has screened more than 85 human patients in her second week on the job and so far has a 100% accuracy rate, according to Maurer.

“The goal of the study is to show what is possible and help to provide a practical application of this research to help screen people, even those who may be asymptomatic, at places like airports, schools and hospitals,” she said. “We have been in contact with state and county officials and are hoping to share our protocol with other agencies who can scale this program.”

Four dogs — Tess, Sadie, Yuki, all Labrador retrievers, and Samson, a golden retriever — have been participating in the study.

The first phase of the study, completed in March, involved training the dogs to detect the scent of COVID-19.

During this time the dogs learned to distinguish the scent of COVID-19 on samples of human sweat collected from the patient’s neck on pieces of gauze.

Queen’s provided hundreds of volunteer samples taken from patients who were coming in for COVID- 19 testing.

The dogs had to learn how to distinguish the scent of COVID-19 from hundreds of other odors emitted through sweat. They learned pretty quickly, according to Maurer, and the second phase, which involved double-blind testing using hundreds of samples from patients, was completed last month.

Three dogs performed extremely well, she said, with an average sensitivity rate, or correctly identifying positive samples, of close to 100% and an average specificity rate, or correctly ignoring negative samples, of over 90%.

Each of the dogs has a natural alerting behavior upon the detection of the COVID-19 scent, according to Maurer. Tess will paw at the box.

Maurer, who conducted two previous studies teaching dogs to detect bacterial infections using urine samples, said the training process was similar. Sweat, which is not believed to transmit the coronavirus, is easier to collect.

“Dogs just have an incredible sense of smell,” said Maurer. “They have over 300 million scent receptors, and they can detect parts per trillion, so we’re just excited about the potential this has to really help in the fight against COVID.”

The COVID detection dogs potentially could provide an additional layer of screening in crowds at places like airports, hospitals, assisted-living centers and schools.

“They won’t take the place of PCR tests, but they can accurately and efficiently screen hundreds of people per day,” she said.

Dr. Whitney Limm, chief physician executive at Queen’s, said Tess is already well known to staff at the center as a calm and comforting presence for cancer and pediatric patients.

“At the moment we are screening people based on history and based on a temperature check,” he said. “This offers an opportunity for noninvasive testing, adding a layer of security without doing something intrusive.”

A protocol is being developed, he said, in which a rapid test would follow a positive identification by a COVID detection dog to confirm it.

The Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, a Maui-based nonprofit that primarily trains dogs to assist those with disabilities, plans to submit the study’s results to a peer-reviewed journal.

HOW TO VOLUNTEER

Assistance Dogs of Hawaii is looking for samples from Oahu and Maui residents who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or who have family members who recently tested positive to determine how early the dogs can detect the coronavirus. Some of the dogs were able to alert to samples days before someone had tested positive, according to Executive Director Maureen Maurer. Volunteers would offer samples daily for a week and be tested. If interested, call 298-0167.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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