WASHINGTON — A steep drop off in coronavirus testing nationally has the Biden administration worried that the spread of COVID-19 may be worse in some areas than it appears.
As the population of vaccinated Americans has grown, COVID-19 testing has declined. Experts are concerned the reduced testing may be masking pockets of infection that, if left unchecked, could result in greater coronavirus spread.
“One of my worries is that we are not testing enough in areas where vaccination rates are low,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told McClatchy. “So we may even have a larger number of cases than what we’re actually seeing recorded. And so we’ve got to test more aggressively so we can understand where the infection is.”
Health officials maintain that vaccines are the best line of defense against the virus. But with infections creeping up in some parts of the country, medical professionals are also emphasizing the continued need for COVID-19 testing.
With the closing of mass testing sites set up earlier in the pandemic, experts say state and federal officials must think creatively about ways to make it easier for individuals to test themselves.
They are especially concerned about unvaccinated individuals who have the disease but are not showing symptoms of the illness and unknowingly spread it to others. Vaccinated individuals, who are less likely to contract COVID-19, are also not being tested enough, they say.
“You get some benefit from getting a vaccination that you don’t have to test as often. I think what the challenge is, it doesn’t mean never testing. And a lot of people have taken that to an extreme and are not testing at all,” said Mara Aspinall, a professor at Arizona State University and an adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation.
Distribution of at-home tests, which some states have already opted to provide to their residents at no cost, could help, experts say.
“Big testing sites are OK, but I think if you give home tests to people who are in areas of outbreaks, I think that would be a significant benefit. Not equal to vaccination, but you know it’s a significant component,” said Brett Giroir, who was the Trump administration’s testing czar.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins also pointed to over-the-counter tests as a useful tool for helping to diagnose coronavirus cases in the unvaccinated.