WASHINGTON – The United States still lacks a comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy more than a year into the pandemic, as the spread of variants and increasing case counts threaten to undermine the effects of the vaccine rollout.
Some public health experts say the rise in new cases underscores the importance of a single, adaptable strategy as states lift restrictions amid spreading variants.
President Joe Biden is facing pressure to finish producing a national plan. In January, Biden signed an executive order creating a pandemic testing board that would develop a national strategy. Experts point to recent moves like a study on the use of free at-home tests and the pending formation of regional testing hubs as likely pieces of an administration plan that could come together this spring.
But developing a comprehensive national strategy isn’t easy. The Department of Health and Human Services must walk the line between standardizing protocols and allowing flexibility for an endless number of scenarios as the pandemic evolves.
Experts say a successful strategy would condense guidance on an array of testing topics for the public, in addition to monitoring and working directly with individual states to respond to outbreaks that arise. The Trump administration faced backlash from Democrats over the lack of a national strategy, but calls waned after Biden took office and focus shifted to vaccines.
“The evolution of the pandemic means that your testing strategies have to evolve to keep with it,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “And I don’t know that that’s happening. I don’t know that states know how to do that.”
Trump administration testing czar Brett Giroir oversaw monthly testing plans from state governments and launched federal testing sites in surge areas around the country. But many federal testing sites were abandoned in favor of vaccination sites.
In Michigan, case positivity rates are currently exceeding 15 percent, far above the recommended 5 percent threshold that suggests testing is keeping pace with the virus. The White House announced April 12 that it is deploying more federal resources to assist Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, including manpower and supplies related to testing.
The state tests around nearly 57,000 people per day and has all of the resources it needs, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson. But Jha said the testing numbers are extremely low considering that the state is home to nearly 10 million people. HHS should have acted to “flood the zone” with testing weeks ago, he said.
“There should have been a massive surge of testing in Michigan in the last few weeks because it would have been a really important part of breaking the cycle of infection,” he said. “There wasn’t.”