UNITED STATES NEWS

Pandemic gets tougher to track as COVID testing plunges

May 10, 2022, 7:00 PM
FILE - Workers at a drive-up COVID-19 testing clinic stand in a tent as they prepare PCR coronaviru...

FILE - Workers at a drive-up COVID-19 testing clinic stand in a tent as they prepare PCR coronavirus tests, Jan. 4, 2022, in Puyallup, Wash., south of Seattle. Testing for COVID-19 has plummeted across the globe, dropping by 70 to 90% worldwide from the first to the second quarter of 2022, making it much tougher for scientists to track the course of the pandemic and spot new, worrisome viral mutants as they emerge and spread. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Testing for COVID-19 has plummeted across the globe, making it much tougher for scientists to track the course of the pandemic and spot new, worrisome viral mutants as they emerge and spread.

Experts say testing has dropped by 70 to 90% worldwide from the first to the second quarter of this year — the opposite of what they say should be happening with new omicron variants on the rise in places such as the United States and South Africa.

“We’re not testing anywhere near where we might need to,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, who directs the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University. “We need the ability to ramp up testing as we’re seeing the emergence of new waves or surges to track what’s happening” and respond.

Reported daily cases in the U.S., for example, are averaging 73,633, up more than 40% over the past two weeks, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. But that is a vast undercount because of the testing downturn and the fact tests are being taken at home and not reported to health departments. An influential modeling group at the University of Washington in Seattle estimates that only 13% of cases are being reported to health authorities in the U.S. — which would mean more than a half million new infections every day.

The drop in testing is global but the overall rates are especially inadequate in the developing world, Udayakumar said. The number of tests per 1,000 people in high income countries is around 96 times higher than it is in low income countries, according to the Geneva-based public health nonprofit FIND.

What’s driving the drop? Experts point to COVID fatigue, a lull in cases after the first omicron wave and a sense among some residents of low-income countries that there’s no reason to test because they lack access to antiviral medications.

At a recent press briefing by the World Health Organization, FIND CEO Dr. Bill Rodriguez called testing “the first casualty of a global decision to let down our guard” and said “we’re becoming blind to what is happening with the virus.”

Testing, genomic sequencing and delving into case spikes can lead to the discovery of new variants. New York state health officials found the super contagious BA.2.12.1 variant after investigating higher-than-average case rates in the central part of the state.

Going forward, “we’re just not going to see the new variants emerge the way we saw previous variants emerge,” Rodriquez told The Associated Press.

Testing increases as infections rise and people develop symptoms — and it falls along with lulls in new cases. Testing is rising again in the U.S. along with the recent surge.

But experts are concerned about the size of the drop after the first omicron surge, the low overall levels of testing globally, and the inability to track cases reliably. While home tests are convenient, only tests sent to labs can be used to detect variants. If fewer tests are being done, and fewer of those tests are processed in labs, fewer positive samples are available for sequencing.

Also, home test results are largely invisible to tracking systems.

Mara Aspinall, managing director of an Arizona-based consulting company that tracks COVID-19 testing trends, said there’s at least four times more home testing than PCR testing, and “we are getting essentially zero data from the testing that’s happening at home.”

That’s because there’s no uniform mechanism for people to report results to understaffed local health departments. The CDC strongly encourages people to tell their doctors, who in most places must report COVID-19 diagnoses to public health authorities.

Generally, though, results from home tests fall under the radar.

Reva Seville, a 36-year-old Los Angeles parent, tested herself at home this week after she began feeling symptoms such as a scratchy throat, coughing and congestion. After the results came back positive, she tested twice more just to be sure. But her symptoms were mild, so she didn’t plan to go to the doctor or report her results to anyone.

Beth Barton of Washington, Missouri, who works in construction, said she’s taken about 10 home tests, either before visiting her parents or when she’s had symptoms she thought might be COVID-19. All came back negative. She shared the results with the people around her but didn’t know how to report them.

“There should be a whole system for that,” said Barton, 42. “We as a society don’t know how to gauge where we’re at.”

Aspinall said one potential solution would be to use technology like scanning a QR code to report home test results confidentiality.

Another way to keep better track of the pandemic, experts said, is to bolster other types of surveillance, such as wastewater monitoring and collecting hospitalization data. But those have their own drawbacks. Wastewater surveillance remains a patchwork that doesn’t cover all areas, and hospitalization trends lag behind cases.

Udayakumar said scientists across the world must use all the tracking methods at their disposal to keep up with the virus, and will need to do so for months or even years.

At the same time, he said, steps must be taken to boost testing in lower-income countries. Demand for tests would rise if access to antivirals were improved in these places, he said. And one of the best ways to increase testing is to integrate it into existing health services, said Wadzanayi Muchenje, who leads health and strategic partnerships in Africa for The Rockefeller Foundation.

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said there will come a point when the world stops widespread testing for COVID-19 – but that day isn’t here yet.

With the pandemic lingering and virus still unpredictable, “it’s not acceptable for us to only be concerned about individual health,” he said. “We have to worry about the population.”

___

AP reporters Bobby Caina Calvan in New York and Carla K. Johnson in Seattle contributed to this story.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Lifetime Windows & Doors

United States News

In this March 23, 2021, photo, a man leaves a bouquet on a police cruiser parked outside the Boulde...
Associated Press

Mass shooters exploited gun laws, loopholes before carnage

The suspects in the shootings at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and a Buffalo, New York, supermarket were both just 18, authorities say, when they bought the weapons used in the attacks — too young to legally purchase alcohol or cigarettes, but old enough to arm themselves with assault weapons. The Buffalo suspect was taken […]
11 hours ago
Eloise Castro, 75 a resident of Uvalde visits a memorial site to lay flowers and a candle in the to...
Associated Press

Official: Kids to 911 during siege: ‘Please send the police’

UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Nearly 20 officers stood in a hallway outside of the classrooms during this week’s attack on a Texas elementary school for more than 45 minutes before agents used a master key to open a door and confront a gunman, authorities said Friday. The on-site commander believed the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Upstate New York teachers put on leave after offensive texts

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Several public school teachers in Rochester were put on leave after exchanging text messages that made “racist and demeaning” references to students, officials said Friday. The Democrat and Chronicle reported the teachers worked at Enrico Fermi School 17, which has a large percentage of Black and Hispanic students in pre-kindergarten through […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Iran seizes 2 Greek tankers in Persian Gulf, tensions spike

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard seized two Greek oil tankers on Friday in the Persian Gulf, just after Athens assisted the U.S. in seizing an Iranian oil tanker over alleged sanctions violations in the Mediterranean Sea. The Guard’s announcement comes as tensions remain high between Iran and the West over […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Lawyer will seek to move trial of Alabama jail escapee

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — A lawyer for an Alabama inmate who was the subject of a national manhunt after escaping with the apparent help of a jail official, said he will ask to move his trial to another city. Mark McDaniel, a lawyer representing Casey White, said he will seek a change of venue to […]
11 hours ago
Detroit firefighters clean up in front of Traffic Jam and Snug Restaurant,  after an overnight fire...
Associated Press

Blaze destroys landmark restaurant in Detroit’s Midtown

DETROIT (AP) — Fire destroyed a landmark restaurant and brewpub Friday in Midtown Detroit, but spared the neighboring Third Man Records store owned by musician Jack White as well as Shinola’s flagship watch store. No one was inside Traffic Jam & Snug at the time of the blaze and the restaurant was believed to be […]
11 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
...
Arizona Division of Problem Gambling

Arizona Division of Problem Gambling provides exclusion solution for young sports bettors

Sports betting in Arizona opened a new world to young adults, one where putting down money on games was as easy as sending a text message.
...
Dr. Richard Carmona

Have you gotten your booster shot?

Do you remember when you got your last COVID-19 vaccination? If it has been more than five months since you completed your primary vaccination series, it’s time for you to get your booster. You may be eligible even sooner depending which vaccine you received. If you are over the age of 50 and received your […]
Pandemic gets tougher to track as COVID testing plunges