With both its accuracy and capacity debated by the public and even experts, COVID-19 testing has become a core focus as the United States tries to contain the spread of the Omicron variant amid the latest surge of coronavirus cases in the country.
The seven-day rolling average of newly reported infections nationwide was about 240,000, up by 60 percent from the previous week, while hospitalizations rose by only 14 percent during the same period, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told reporters on Wednesday.
Millions of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests are flying off pharmacy shelves across the country, giving Americans an instant, if sometimes imperfect, read on whether they are infected with the coronavirus, reported The New York Times on Thursday, noting that the results are rarely reported to public health departments, exacerbating the longstanding challenges of maintaining an accurate count of cases when infections surge.
"At the minimum, the widespread availability of at-home tests is wreaking havoc with the accuracy of official positivity rates and case counts. At the other extreme, it is one factor making some public health experts raise a question that once would have been unthinkable: Do counts of coronavirus cases serve a useful purpose, and if not, should they be continued?" said the report.
"Our entire approach to the pandemic has been case-based surveillance: We have to count every case, and that's just not accurate anymore," said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, a national nonprofit organization representing public health agencies in the United States. "It's just becoming a time where we've got to think about doing things differently."
Meanwhile, new research suggested that rapid tests widely used to identify potential COVID-19 cases might be less effective at identifying illness caused by the swiftly spreading Omicron variant, reported The Washington Post, noting that "the finding is the latest complication for anyone trying to strike a common-sense balance between being vigilant and returning to normalcy as the country approaches the third year of the pandemic."
The research, issued on Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and produced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said the rapid antigen tests, which have been in high demand and often hard to find this holiday season, "do detect the Omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity." However, the findings do not necessarily mean the tests will be less sensitive in the real world.
Although rapid tests showed reduced sensitivity to Omicron compared with earlier variants in a lab study, the real-world implications are not clear and are still under investigation, said Bruce J. Tromberg, director of NIH's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and lead of RADx Tech, an effort to assess and speed up the development of tests in cooperation with the FDA.
"Long lines and empty shelves continue to slow testing for COVID-19 as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads, with testing relief likely weeks away," reported The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, adding that the limited availability of test kits is frustrating people seeking tests and complicating efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus when most needed.
Public health officials were quoted as saying that the dearth of testing, combined with the Omicron variant's highly contagious nature, "could lead to a rapid increase in cases that might overwhelm strapped healthcare systems." There were 710 million tests performed in the past week, compared with 688 million tests in the week ended Dec. 9, according to official data.
People across the country aired their exasperation on social media, detailing their often fruitless searches for tests at government sites, drugstores, hospitals and even fire departments, said the report. Helicopters dispatched by local newscasts showed crowded test sites on the ground below, and friends texted one another in search of information about where at-home test kits might be available.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Dec. 21 that his administration would be providing 500 million at-home tests for free across the United States, and according to Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist and professor at New York University Langone Health Division of Medical Ethics, the initiative is still not enough. "Right now, I still think we're not in a great place," Caplan told Yahoo Finance.
"We don't have enough testing. The federal government has promised 500 million tests coming in six weeks or so. 500 million tests is, sadly, not sufficient. These tests require two tests, 24 hours apart, to confirm what you find. That means 250 million people can get tested, if you will, once. We need a lot more testing capability than that," the medical expert was quoted as saying.
"Why are we talking so much about testing? It's because you test and you don't go to school. You test and you don't go to work. That's the way to control spread. It's great to be vaccinated, but it's even better if we can get tested every day, every other day, and then stay home if we're sick. It's simple," added Caplan.