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Editorial: Testing is our only way forward with COVID

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Rapid antigen COVID tests, like Abbott’s widely available BinaxNOW test, needs to more readily accessible in our recovery. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

It’s been hard to avoid the news about COVID in these last few weeks.

I spent nearly two weeks before Christmas playing double duty as newspaper editor and daddy daycare after positive cases closed our child care classrooms. My daughters are great and a lot of fun, but quality copy editors they are not.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

Then just when I thought we might get a respite for the holiday break, I had to quarantine after coming into contact with another positive case while my extended family faced their own exposures. Socially distanced festivities replete with baby blue surgical masks and pre-gathering nasal swabs didn’t exactly create a joyful mood.

Grinch thy name is COVID, ruining yet another typically fun-filled time of year.

I can recall reading about the emerging omicron variant cases in South Africa on Thanksgiving Day and sighing deeply to myself, knowing that was only the beginning. Within a few short days, reports began to spread across Europe and finally to the United States. Since then, the nation’s daily positive case numbers have exploded to record highs, fueled by the extremely contagious, although potentially milder, variant.

Delaware, and the entire Mid-Atlantic, has seen a particularly large uptick in cases among the winter surge, exacerbated by holiday gatherings that bring family and friends together. On Dec. 28, the first day that many post-Christmas COVID tests would have been analyzed, more than 60% of tests were positive.

Testing in the pre-Christmas week had found a 12% positive case rate with an average per capita of 40 hospitalizations across the state, a level we haven’t seen since last January before vaccines were widely available.

Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to test positive and 20 times more likely to die of COVID than those who are vaccinated and have received a booster shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to state officials, more than 70% of hospitalizations in Delaware earlier in December were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Meanwhile, recognizing the impending economic calamity of potentially millions of workers leaving the workplace to quarantine from exposure, the CDC cut its recommended quarantine period in half from 10 days to five for those without symptoms, or without a fever and other resolving symptoms.

Employers may have breathed a sigh of relief at the move, but scientists and the public were confounded by the lack of an associated testing requirement or a data-backed explanation for the decrease. Are we really less contagious in half the time we originally thought?

As we now sit just a few months removed from the two-year mark and more than a year since vaccinations have been publicly available, more than a quarter of the U.S. remains unvaccinated. Let’s face it, they aren’t going to get vaccinated at any significant rate at this point.

Continued emphasis from the Biden administration on vaccination would be wasted effort at this point in the crisis – misinformation abounds, and cultural divisions have been drawn.

What is particularly disappointing is that the administration didn’t recognize this fact sooner and turn its attention instead to a robust rapid testing regimen, as many in Europe have done. While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved only about a dozen rapid antigen tests for use here – choosing to instead focus on more accurate PCR tests – about 200 rapid tests have been approved in Europe.

Germany and the United Kingdom in particular bought hundreds of millions of tests for free public giveaways, encouraging the public to get a better handle on when they were contagious. The manufacturing ramp up and wide competition drove test prices down to as low as $1.50 a test. As of this week, tests here are commonly costing around $12 each.

President Biden recently announced that the U.S. would roll out a similar initiative this month, shipping 500 million rapid tests to American doorsteps. But those tests have yet to be acquired and the website portal hasn’t launched – all while omicron and delta continue to rage.

It’s particularly disappointing to read the recent damning Vanity Fair report that the Biden administration didn’t act on a proposal to ramp up tests back in October ahead of the expected holiday surge, even before omicron was identified.

Rapid tests are not infallible, but they are an important tool that are quite accurate when positive cases are at their most contagious. As this virus increasingly looks endemic, low-cost and accessible testing will be an important part of protecting our public health and reassuring our fraying nerves.

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