The winter holidays are putting a sharp focus on at-home testing for COVID-19 as families look to ensure their first gatherings in two years don’t turn into superspreader events.
While vaccines provide some level of protection against infection, many Americans are unvaccinated and there are increasing reports of breakthrough infections in the vaccinated along with evidence they can spread the virus, too.
“One extra layer of protection that you might take is to take a rapid test before you gather together,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Monday in a briefing ahead of Thanksgiving.
Rapid antigen tests from companies such as BinaxNOW, QuickVue and Ellume can be found at pharmacies, although supply can vary from place to place and some locations place limits on how many packages customers can buy in one visit.
Some public health experts have bemoaned the lack of cheap testing options in the U.S., saying rapid options are more ubiquitous abroad and diagnostics have been a blind spot for the U.S. over the past two administrations.
Former President Donald Trump sometimes looked askance at testing as it added to the scoreboard of infections, while President Biden has placed vaccination at the forefront of the government’s response.
Public health experts said part of the problem is that the Food and Drug Administration applied stringent standards for medical devices to its testing approvals.
Rapid antigen tests aren’t as sensitive as “PCR” tests that can detect even minuscule levels of virus in the nose, though scientists say they’re good at catching active infections and should be viewed as a valuable tool in disrupting chains of infection.
Reported U.S. infections have climbed to more than 90,000 per day after a decrease to the low 70,000s in late October. Hospitalizations have ticked above 50,000.
It’s not as bad as Thanksgiving week last year, when the U.S. recorded 170,000 cases per day and averaged 90,000 hospitalizations ahead of a vaccine rollout that began in December. But the numbers are headed in the wrong direction.
Testing will be increasingly important as drugmakers like Pfizer and Merck produce treatment pills for COVID-19. The therapeutics will only be valuable if health providers and patients can detect cases and use the treatments at the right time to stave off bad outcomes.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients defended the administration’s efforts in a briefing this week. He said 13 types of tests are on the market and there is enough supply to get the nation through the holiday period.
“We’ve made significant investments across the last few months: $3 billion in rapid testing in order to quadruple the supply of at-home tests from September to December,” Mr. Zients said. “Increasingly, tests are being sold in single packs, making them more convenient and affordable. So overall, we will have about a half-billion tests per month by the end of this year. About half of those will be the increasingly popular and convenient at-home tests, so this is well-timed for the holiday season.”