Scranton pharmacist Mike Ruane speaks to patients who have signed up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during a transit clinic at Scranton High School in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Friday, February 26, 2021. (Sean McKeag / The Citizens’ voice on AP)
Just five weeks ago, Los Angeles County was running more than 350,000 weekly coronavirus tests, including at a massive drive-through location at Dodger Stadium as health workers raced around the worst COVID-19 hotspot in the United States
Now district officials say the tests almost collapsed. More than 180 government-sponsored locations are only one-third busy.
“It’s shocking how fast we went from 100 mph to about 25 mph,” said Dr. Clemens Hong, who heads the district’s test operations.
After a year of struggling to increase testing, communities across the country are seeing a drop in demand, testing sites closings, or even attempts to return supplies.
The decline in screening comes at a significant time in the outbreak: Experts are cautiously optimistic that COVID-19 is on the decline after the deaths of more than 500,000 people in the US, but fear that emerging variants could prolong the epidemic.
“Everyone is hoping for quick, widespread vaccinations, but I don’t think we’ve got to any point where we can drop our guard,” said Hong. “We just don’t have enough people immune to rule out another surge.”
US testing peaked on Jan. 15 when the country was running an average of more than 2 million tests a day. Since then, the average number of daily tests has decreased by more than 28%. Drop mirrors have been in decline for all major virus actions since January, including new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Sgt.Richard Grant of the Air National Guard helps point a patient in the right direction at a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Augusta Civic Center on Friday, February 26, 2021 in Augusta, Maine. Governor Janet Mills said Mainers 60 and older could get the vaccine starting Wednesday March 3rd. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty)
Officials say these encouraging trends, along with harsh winter weather, the end of the vacation travel season, pandemic fatigue, and a growing focus on vaccinations, are diminishing interest in testing.
“When you combine all of these factors, you see this decline,” said Dr. Richard Pescatore of the Delaware Department of Health, where daily tests have fallen more than 40% since the January high. “People just won’t go to test sites.”
However, testing remains important in tracking and containing the outbreak.
LA County is opening more testing options near public transportation, schools, and offices for ease of use. And Santa Clara County officials are urging residents “to continue to receive regular testing,” highlighting new mobile test buses and pop-up sites.
President Joe Biden has promised to overhaul the nation’s testing system by investing billions more in supplies and government coordination. However, with demand dropping rapidly, the country could soon be flooded with unused supplies. Arizona State University researchers predict that the US will be able to run nearly 1 billion monthly tests by June. That’s more than 25 times the country’s current rate of about 40 million tests per month.
With more than 150 million new vaccine doses slated to ship by the end of March, tests are likely to drop further as local governments shift staff and resources to shots.
This file photo, dated Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, shows a rapid BinaxNOW COVID-19 test conducted by Abbott Laboratories in Tacoma, Wash. In some cases, test sites are being closed or even attempted to return consumables. (AP Photo / Ted S. Warren)
“You have to choose your battles here,” said Dr. Jeffrey Engel of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. “Everyone would agree that if you have a nurse, you use that person for vaccinations, not tests.”
Some experts say the country needs to double its testing to avoid a flare-up of the coronavirus variants that have caught on in the UK, South Africa and other countries.
“We need to use tests to continue the downward trend,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick of the Rockefeller Foundation, who advised Biden officials. “We have to have it there to catch the waves of variation.”
Last week, Minnesota urged families to get tested every two weeks through the end of the school year as more students return to the classroom.
“To protect this progress, we must use all the tools at our disposal,” said Dan Huff, a deputy state health commissioner.
However, some of the vocal advocates of testing are less concerned about the declines in screening. From a public health perspective, tests are effective if they help locate those infected quickly, track their contacts, and isolate them to stop the spread. In most parts of the US, that never happened.
California Governor Gavin Newsom watches a farm worker at a farm worker vaccination clinic at the Community Center on Friday, February 26, 2021. Sharon Stanley-Rea in Fresno, California receiving Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine (John Walker / The Fresno Bee via AP, Pool)
During the holiday season, many Americans had to wait days to get test results, making them largely unusable. That has resulted in testing fatigue and dwindling interest, said Dr. Michael Mina from Harvard University.
“It doesn’t give you a lot of gratifying, immediate feedback,” Mina said. “So people’s willingness or interest to be tested is decreasing.”
Nevertheless, the US test manufacturers continue to increase production. Another 110 million rapid and home tests are expected to be launched next month.
Government officials long assumed that this growing arsenal of cheap 15-minute tests would be used to regularly screen millions of students and teachers when face-to-face lessons resume. However, recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not emphasize testing, describing it as an “extra layer of protection” behind basic measures like masking and social distancing.
Even without strong support from the federal government, education leaders say testing programs will be important in building the public confidence needed to fully reopen schools, including this fall when cases are expected to pick up again.
“Schools rightly asked themselves, ‘Is the juice worth the pressure to run a big testing effort?'” Said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that advises districts in more than 25 states. “Our message to the school systems we work with is, ‘Yes, you have to take full tests because you are going to need them.'”
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