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Decrease in COVID testing has experts on alert

A recent decrease in the number of Americans seeking testing for COVID-19 has experts on alert. Accurate and timely testing remains critical for treating and isolating individuals with COVID-19 infection, they stress. Widespread testing also allows for tracking the spread of the virus and any variants of concern as they arise.

"Even though it feels like maybe things are slowing down a bit with this pandemic, it still is really important to go in and be tested," especially for people who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, Romney M. Humphries, PhD, said during a media briefing Thursday sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

"If we don't test, we don't know how much infection is there," Humphries added.

Although infection rates are much lower than a few months ago, "they are still high," Mary K Hayden, MD, said during the briefing.

Rates remain higher in some areas than they were during summer 2020, said Hayden, IDSA fellow, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and director of the Division of Clinical Microbiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"So we're still seeing a good amount of infection," Hayden said. "I don't think we're at a place yet where we can really relax our overall strategies and reduce testing."

The US performed about 708,000 daily tests, on average, over the past week, compared with nearly 818,000 at the end of July. Some states have seen even more dramatic declines: Texas' weekly average of coronavirus tests administered has fallen 45% in the past month. Arizona's has fallen by 36%, and Florida's by 27%.

That's the opposite direction from where testing should be going, experts say.

"One of the biggest obstacles to containment has been the fact that we don't have a testing strategy and people don't know their status," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Business Insider. "When you look at countries that have been able to contain [the virus], they didn't do anything out of the ordinary. They tested, traced, and isolated."

Why testing remains vital

With the drop in testing numbers, "are we truly seeing a reduction in cases?" Humphries asked.

Testing will help public health officials track variants of interest and variants of concern, as well as gauge the success of vaccination and protection from prior infection, she added.

The message remains that people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should seek testing. On an individual level, an accurate and prompt diagnosis can promote appropriate treatment and help protect close contacts.

Even if COVID-19 testing was more widespread and accessible (like some of the home tests), Humphries said other concerns remain. "One of the challenges that we're faced with is that there's been a lot of movement away from some of the really important control strategies that have been used to mitigate this pandemic." Areas that are opening public spaces to full capacity or eliminating mask mandates, for example, are "creating a sense, I think, for the public that the pandemic is over.

"And by no means is that true," she added.

Sources: NPR, IDSA, Business Insider, WebMD

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