Why some officials are asking people to get COVID-19 tests — even without symptoms or exposure

Korin Miller
·6 min read
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Jeffery Pettyjohn, a signal light maintainer for the MTA, is administered a COVID-19 test on October 30, 2020 in New York City. The MTA has deployed COVID-19 screening sites for its employees at their bus depots and train yards, as coronavirus infections have eclipsed the 9 million threshold since the first confirmed case in the U.S. two hundred and eighty three days ago.(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
Some government officials are using a new strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19: testing everyone for it, whether they have symptoms or not. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

As cases of COVID-19 reach new daily records, some government officials are using a new strategy: testing everyone for it, whether they have symptoms or not.

Officials in Salem, Mass., are hosting “Knowvember,” an event that runs through Dec. 31 in which locals can get free COVID-19 testing at two different sites. “Protect yourself and others by getting tested at least twice a month,” reads a notice on the official Salem website. “Help us know the prevalence of COVID-19 in Salem. Know if you are contagious or have the virus without symptoms. Getting tested will help us know the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

Los Angeles County residents are also being encouraged to get tested for COVID-19, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out a strict new travel advisory that leans heavily on a testing strategy. The policy, which went into effect on Nov. 4, allows out-of-state visitors to “test out” of the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine. New York specifically requires the following of a traveler who was out of the state for more than 24 hours:

  • Travelers must take a COVID-19 test within three days of departure from the state visited.

  • The traveler must, upon arrival in New York, quarantine for three days.

  • On day four of their quarantine, the traveler must obtain another COVID-19 test. If both tests come back negative, the traveler may leave quarantine early.

Travelers who were in another state for less than 24 hours must fill out a traveler health form when they enter New York and take a COVID-19 test four days after their arrival. They do not need to quarantine. The advisory recommends that people contact their local health department for information about testing.

While a mandate like New York’s can be difficult to enforce, Cuomo said in a news briefing on Friday that he will post the National Guard to airports to help. “You should not land if you do not have proof of a negative test upon landing,” he told reporters.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the following groups of people be tested for COVID-19:

  • People who have symptoms of COVID-19.

  • People who have had close contact (within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more) with someone with confirmed COVID-19.​​

  • People who have been asked or referred to get testing by their health care provider, or local or state health department.

Experts have mixed thoughts on the strategy of doing widespread testing of a population to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Testing people without known risk factors is something that can be useful to understand the prevalence of the infection in a community,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s something we want to move to — ideally at-home testing — as availability increases and we no longer worry about shortages.”

Henry F. Raymond, associate professor and epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health, agrees. “I think it’s great,” he tells Yahoo Life. “It would have been even better if we could have done this earlier on as well.” Raymond compares this strategy to similar ones used to detect HIV in at-risk populations. “It allows us to get ahead of the ball,” he says. “If you have to wait until you have symptoms, that’s a lot of time that you may have been spreading and didn’t know it.”

“In a perfect world, we would go door-to-door and test everyone every two weeks,” Raymond says. “Then we would be able to pick up cases that didn’t know it, and people who were about to become sick.”

However, he says, supplies may be an issue: “If we had unlimited tests, I would have no problem with this. But if it becomes a situation where you need to prioritize care and treatment, we don’t want to go too far in testing everyone.”

There are still not enough tests in the U.S. to meet the demand. A recent survey conducted by the American Society for Microbiology found that there are still testing shortages across the country. The survey analyzed data from 127 labs across the U.S. and found that 50 percent of them have a shortage of commercial testing kits for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“So long as shortages exist, we have to make sure that symptomatic patients are prioritized,” Adalja says.

Testing everyone can help convince people that the virus is a real threat, though, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “A lot of people still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough,” he says. “If increased testing will help in this regard, it will be a benefit to society.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that he has concerns about tests giving people a false sense of confidence. “Rapid tests can give a lot of false negatives — it certainly got the White House into trouble,” he says. Whether a rapid test or more complex PCR test, or swab test, is used, “testing negative might give people a false sense of confidence and security so that they ease up on all of the masking and social distancing recommendations,” Schaffner says. He adds, “I’m not so sure about this.”

Schaffner says that widespread testing can be useful, “but it has to be done with care. You have to interpret the results very carefully so that people don’t view it as a cure-all.” Raymond agrees that testing runs the risk of making people less cautious. “There is a bit of a double-edged sword to it,” he says.

Watkins also points out that just because a person tests negative for the virus at one point in time doesn’t mean they can’t be infected with it afterward. “You can catch it tomorrow,” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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