How COVID data will change after Biden's testing push

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Amid a surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Biden administration launched a new testing initiative last week, sending every residence four free rapid tests and requiring private health insurers to cover up to eight at-home tests per month for those on their plans.

The White House had faced criticism over their pandemic response efforts for the last couple of months – especially as states shattered cases records, Americans found rapid tests extremely scarce or overpriced, and wait times for PCR tests were hours long in frigid temperatures.

While increased access to affordable at-home testing is imperative to halt the spread of the virus, questions regarding how this new push will shape the nation’s understanding of pandemic data remain. 

Leaders in several states say the omicron wave is seemingly slowing – although scientists predict it will not be the last variant of concern threatening the U.S. 

A woman wearing a winter coat gets tested for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. 
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Dr. Ali Raja, executive vice chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was recently swabbing a patient. He pointed out that Boston’s wastewater had shown that the prevalence of COVID was much greater than was being reported by the state because “a lot of people were likely testing at home and just not telling anybody that they came back positive.”

“But, there was no way to report that,” Raja told Fox News. “And so, there [are] a lot of positive tests that are being done at home that aren’t reported. And contact tracing with a system that doesn’t allow for reporting with rapid tests that don’t have any software linkages is bound to result in underreporting and make contact tracing impossible.”

He said that in order to develop a contact tracing program that’s effective, there need to be ways for at-home tests to be reported positive – and easy methods for patients who are older. 

“There has to be an easier way to do that. And, that’s just not something that’s available right now,” Raja added. 

Youngstown City Health Department worker Faith Terreri grabs two at-home COVID-19 test kits to be handed out during a distribution event, Dec. 30, 2021, in Youngstown, Ohio. 
(AP Photo/David Dermer, File)

National COVID-19 data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the U.S. has recorded more than 70.6 million cases of the disease and more than 864,000 deaths. Data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows more than 868,000 deaths, with more than 71 million cases. 

The true toll of the pandemic is much greater and records of excess mortality show many more people have died in America and around the world. 

While countries have reported more than 5.6 million deaths in two years, global excess deaths are estimated at two to four times greater, according to Nature.

“I think as long as we understand that the data is under and likely not overreported, we can rely on the trends. Because [those] reasons for underreporting – especially in terms of home testing – they haven’t changed considerably,” Raja said. “And so, while I think that the overall numbers are lower than the actual prevalence of COVID is right now, the trends are what we can rely on.” 

While the future of testing and pandemic America remains uncertain, best practices for testing are not. 

“When you have symptoms, rapid tests can be falsely negative. And so, it’s really still important – just like we’ve told people for years – to stay home from work if you’re feeling sick,” he said, adding that at-home rapid tests can be good for these types of decision-making situations, as long as an individual has no symptoms.

Still, he worries a lot about falsely negative tests, especially for those who present symptoms.

For his patients, Raja recommends testing before coming out of isolation – something the CDC didn’t initially recommend – and said to come out of isolation without a negative test “still seems risky.”

He also urged people to address price gouging and testing inequities that impact underserved communities the most. 

“I think we’re starting to see some change and that is all about the simple changes of masking and testing,” Raja said. Because we know that there’ll be the next variant … And, the fact that now we’re starting to get to a place where we can widely distribute tests and that we’re recommending high-quality masks, we can actually hopefully decrease the spikes, even if the variants are more transmissible like omicron or potentially less transmissible.” 

He said that while he is hopeful this round of test distribution will be a start to the help health care systems and hospitals like Massachusetts General need, four tests are not going to be enough for workers and their families. 

“We need to have a much more sustainable system than just mailing out for tests,” Raja said. 

Recently, some state health authorities instructed medical professionals and health care workers that they can continue to work after testing positive if they have no symptoms or just mild ones. 

Raja said this is a “tough decision,” but that the places doing this well are following current CDC guidance.

Many hospitals are severely shorthanded, but infection with COVID-19 is not the only reason.

“For the health care workers that really focus on saving everybody’s lives when they come into the hospital, the two biggest challenges right now are our staffing and burnout,” he said, highlighting that those who are coming to work find themselves with double the amount of work.

“There are so many nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners and doctors and environmental services personnel and administrative people I’ve spoken to who have talked about the fact that they are just done with health care and their jobs,” he added. “And once they leave, finding the people to fill their roles – it’s becoming harder and harder.”

“I get that there [are] so many important industries that are impacted, but this is a real challenge for us because there is going to be a need for health care workers after COVID,” Raja concluded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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