Editorial: Testing questions renewed

·3 min read

Vaccines are the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic: the key to reducing the number of deaths caused by the disease, easing the burden on our stretched-to-the-limit health care system and ending restrictions meant to limit the spread of infections.

At-home antigen, or “rapid,” tests are another essential arrow in the quiver to fight this disease, but the lack of availability and high cost have nullified their widespread use and, by extension, blunted their impact.

That has to change. There are a lot of forces keeping at-home COVID tests out of American hands, but this needs the No. 2 priority after vaccinations since these tests provide information essential for civic-minded people to make smart decisions.

COVID-19 isn’t disappearing — the United States is again averaging more than 2,000 deaths a day from the disease — and elected officials are more reluctant than ever to impose the sort of tight restrictions that marked the early day of the pandemic.

That makes sense since it’s better for kids to attend in-person schools than to rely on distance learning, many small businesses can ill afford further disruptions and officials are rightly concerned about “pandemic fatigue,” despite the surging case, hospitalization and death figures.

The way forward, then, is two-fold: vaccinating as many people as possible and reliable testing — including quick, inexpensive at-home testing — so people have a better idea about whether to circulate in public or stay clear of others.

The first part is plainly evident. The vaccines are safe and effective. They keep people out of hospitals and prevent those infected from dying. They do not stop COVID entirely — the slow pace of vaccination virtually assures that we’ll be battling the disease for a long while — but they help keep communities safer.

However, that second component, testing, is also critical. Making rapid tests more publicly available — and cheap, if not free — must be a national, state and local priority.

It is ludicrous that 18 months into the pandemic, rapid tests are not widely available to anyone who wants them since they promote safe interactions, travel, commerce … you name it.

Other countries — England, Germany and Israel, among others — have achieved far more robust testing programs, distributing at-home tests and setting up sites in numerous, easy-to-reach locations. And Colorado just launched a program to send at-home rapid tests to any resident who requests one.

Meanwhile, drug stores throughout Hampton Roads don’t have them on the shelves and online retailers only sell them in bulk at a price out of reach for a public school teacher, police officer or, really, most families. And, again, that’s only when they’re available online, which is rare.

Antigen tests aren’t 100% accurate, but they allow people to make more informed decisions, such as whether to get a more accurate antibody test, to quarantine or seek treatment. Access to at-home testing avoids the rigmarole of finding a testing location, getting the swab and then waiting up to 24 hours for a result.

They are particularly helpful for schools if we want students, teachers and staff to continue to operate in person (and we do if classroom instruction is safe). Should little Joey or Jane stay home from school today? A rapid test helps in that calculus.

As the nation enters a flu season that promises to be worse than last year, when few people were congregating indoors, access to at-home rapid testing is essential. Is that just a cough from reconditioned dry air or something worse? Is that headache just from another day staring at a computer screen or am I unwittingly incubating the virus?

Recent New York Times reporting suggests the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s stringent rules about approving tests is part of the hang up, and that the Biden administration did not push harder on testing, assuming that vaccination rates would be better by now.

It’s true: Vaccines are the key. But at-home rapid testing would empower Americans with the information they need to make smart decisions. We need more of them. Now.

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