As virus spirals across Kansas, robust testing matters — and might even provide a nudge

September 7, 2021 3:33 am

Last year, long lines of vehicles at COVID-19 testing sites were common. Things have changed, and testing can now be performed in your own home. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Remember COVID-19 testing?

Back in the early months of the pandemic, it was kind of a big deal. Dollars were poured into creating testing sites, news outlets tracked the amount of testing in communities, and we all lined up in our cars for nasal swabs. Ah, nostalgia.

We could agree on testing. Everyone wanted to know whether they were infected. Today, debates over vaccines and masking have all but incinerated our ability to tackle the virus collectively. Don’t get me wrong: The focus makes sense. Shots all but eliminate serious cases of the virus, and masks prevent spread among the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. More doubters might be persuaded, though, with a new approach toward COVID-19 testing, making it less unusual and more commonplace.

There are new ways to test, too. Rapid antigen tests are now over the counter, allowing anyone with $20-40 bucks to test themselves at home. You can take a look at the video accompanying this column to see how they work, featuring my very own nose.

These rapid tests aren’t perfect. They don’t do a particularly great job at detecting asymptomatic cases. They are, however, useful at confirming an infection in someone with symptoms. In other words, they’re most likely to return a positive result when you’re at your most infectious. They’re also a useful precaution if you simply can’t wait for results from the more sensitive PCR test administered at a doctor’s office or pharmacy.

“For those home tests, what we’ve seen with antigen tests, including influenza tests, is that when the disease spread is more prevalent in a community, those tests seem to be more accurate,” said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Kansas Health System, during a news briefing Thursday. “So if there is a positive, you can absolutely believe that it’s a positive.”

To me, using these tests frequently seems like a no brainer.

Other countries figured it out first. In England, for instance, the rapid tests are free and government health officials advise everyone to test themselves a couple of times a week. Imagine what a schedule like that might mean in Kansas or the United States — we could avoid exposing kids and adults to folks in their most infectious stage of COVID. Wouldn’t that be worthwhile?

Germany has followed much the same path, with free rapid tests widely available. Their program has actually been so widespread that government officials are now winding it down to encourage vaccination.

Kansas officials deserve praise in offering an array of free testing sites across the state. That’s important. But as noted above, the waits for top-of-the-line PCR testing can be lengthy, and schlepping around to find a free test can be exhausting — especially if you’re symptomatic. At-home tests could be a great addition to the battle.

Let’s be frank: As the delta variant cascades across Kansas and schools reopen, we need to know who’s infected and who’s not. Delta now accounts for most cases in the United States and is more than twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus. Testing, if conducted smartly and regularly, can detect those cases and isolate infected folks. That’s especially important at elementary schools, where large numbers of unvaccinated children under the age of 12 learn, play, eat and spread germs.

You might be skeptical, and I get it. When health officials are struggling to prevent Kansas from guzzling horse dewormer, perhaps trusting these same Kansans to administer at-home tests correctly and interpret the results in context is asking too much. But I believe the 48.4% of us who have been vaccinated can follow the rules and help keep ourselves and others safe. 

Would a cheaper price at the pharmacy help? Yes. Would wider awareness that home tests are available help? I’m trying to do my bit through this very column.

With schools back in session, testing is “another mechanism to try and monitor what’s going on within that population and try to reduce transmission to the degree possible,” said Amanda Cackler, director of infection prevention and control with KU Health, in that same Thursday briefing.

No, testing won’t solve everything. But as we all struggle to bring delta under control, it’s clear that no single measure will tame the variant, especially with large numbers of science-resistant folk among us. Vaccines work terrifically well at preventing infection, hospitalization and death. However, not everyone will take them, and we still see a low percentage of breakthrough cases. Masks are also effective at preventing transmission and infection, but many of us wear flimsy masks that don’t fit well, while others refuse them altogether. Isolating in your room works 100% of the time, but few of us are willing to make that sacrifice after 18 months.

So why not double down on testing? At worst, it adds another layer of screening. At best, it adds another layer of screening and protects our coworkers, friends and families. As it weaves into the fabric of our lives, perhaps some of us might reconsider vaccines and masking.

Sounds like a tactic worth remembering.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.