World

Will the US ever have a national Covid-19 testing strategy?

NEW YORK: As the coronavirus epidemic worsens, US health experts hope Joe Biden’s administration will put in place something Donald Trump’s has not — a comprehensive national testing strategy.
Such a strategy, they say, could systematically check more people for infections and spot surges before they take off.
The health experts say it would be an improvement from the current practice, which has professional athletes and students at elite universities getting routine tests while many other Americans stand in line for hours — if they get tested at all.
“We have had no strategy for this virus. Our strategy has been no strategy,” said Dr Michael Mina, a Harvard University researcher focused on use of testing to track disease.
Some experts say the lack of such a system is one reason for the current national explosion in cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
“If we’d had a more robust approach and testing was scaled up as one of the tools, I think much of this third surge would have been avoidable,” said Dr Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
There are differing opinions on what such a strategy should look like, but many experts say rapid and at-home tests should be used so Americans can check themselves and stay away from others if they test positive.
The president-elect has endorsed that strategy, called for making testing free for all Americans, and said government experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies should be empowered to coordinate the entire effort.
“The reality is we’re not testing enough today,” Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith, co-chair of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board, told The Associated Press this week.
His transition team so far has not gone into further detail.
Testing was one of the first — and most enduring — stumbles in the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic that hit the nation early this year.
In February, the CDC distributed test kits to public health laboratories that initially were faulty.
US officials worked with companies to expand testing, but shortages of chemicals, materials and protective equipment meant fewer tests were available than what experts said was necessary.
Worse, some experts say, states and cities competed against each other to buy limited testing services and materials, and with little guidance or training on how to best use the tests.
In April, President Donald Trump declared governors were responsible for testing.
Amid complaints about shortages and delays, the federal government began sourcing and shipping key testing supplies to states, beginning with swabs.
In the latest phase, Trump officials are sending more than 100 million rapid, point-of-care tests to states.
The government said the first shipments went out in early October.
Such tests are considered key to slowing spread, but states have distributed them differently.
For example, Alaska is sending tests to oil drilling sites, Colorado to local public health agencies for testing homeless populations, and Mississippi to veterans’ homes.
There’s also no federal standard for reporting test data. Some states report the number of tests administered, while others tally the number of people tested.
Some have counted types of tests that others don’t, which can skew results because some tests are better at diagnosing active infections than others.
Administration officials say they are proud of the current state of testing.
Last month, Vice President Mike Pence celebrated that 170 million tests have been completed, and that an expanding array of tests are available.
But the focus should be less on numbers and more on action, said Dr Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health.
“It shouldn’t be anybody who needs a test can get a test,” Khan said.
“It should be anybody who has a positive test immediately gets isolated” and the people they were in contact with checked and placed in quarantine.
He was echoed by Nunez-Smith, the Biden coronavirus adviser.
“Testing is only useful when we can act on the test,” said Nunez-Smith, a Yale health equity researcher.
Trump himself has voiced a lack of enthusiasm for comprehensive testing.
In a June tweet, the president called testing a double-edged sword that is good to have but “makes us look bad.” And Dr Scott Atlas — a top pandemic adviser to Trump before he resigned Monday — argued against testing people who aren’t experiencing symptoms.
But some regard such thinking as an attempt to spin a leadership failure into something else.
“The executive branch has seen test results – case counts – as a report card on its performance,” said Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington evolutionary biologist who studies emerging infectious diseases.
The nation may be weeks away from coronavirus vaccines becoming available, but that won’t erase the need for testing, said the Rockefeller Foundation’s Eileen O’Connor.

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