Opinion

Audio Astra: How we ignored the most popular COVID prevention — testing

January 7, 2022 3:33 am

Under a proposal announced by President Joe Biden, Americans can get reimbursed for the roughly $25 cost of Abbott BinaxNOW rapid tests. (Laura Olson/States Newsroom)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

“A COVID Testing Crisis, Again”

The Daily, Dec. 22, 2021

Have you read the news accounts of Americans protesting COVID-19 testing sites? The scores of people who paint signs and aggressively march outside of testing sites. The angry mobs of anti-testing parents who disrupt school board meetings. The public officials railing against how cotton swabs implant a microchip into our unsuspecting noses.

No?

That’s because testing is the most popular intervention against the virus. We see testing as a bit uncomfortable, sure. But for many Americans, it’s better than the alternative COVID precautions.

Wide swaths of America refuse to fully vaccinate, let alone schedule booster appointments. Masking is sometimes still seen as an unlawful, suffocating infringement on liberty. Testing remains, in this politically divided moment, as popular as … well, I had trouble completing that analogy because 85% of Americans supported testing about one year ago. We don’t agree about anything in that way these days.

Last week in Great Britain, there was a protest against testing. The punch line? The protest was an accident. Anti-vaxxing activists stormed into a vaccination clinic, disrupting the workers, stealing equipment and making a scene for the cameras. The crowd seems to have mistaken the testing site for a vaccination location, an error that says more about their intellect than their message about vaccines.

But testing? Everyone is clamoring for testing.

COVID infections hit my family this week. For the first 21 months of the pandemic, our family of four didn’t have a single exposure that caused us to quarantine. No close contacts. No positive tests. No kids sent home from school.

This week was different. My household had one positive case and countless exposures as uncles, cousins, siblings, partners, nieces, nephews and more were infected. We traded text messages about tight chests, sniffling noses, coughs, vomiting and fevers. My phone vibrated with photos of children crashed out on living room floors and positive test strips sitting on bathroom counters. (My family’s cases here in Kansas were mild, thanks to strong compliance with vaccination recommendations.)

Even so, the omicron-powered surge sent me scrambling for tests. Makeshift signs, somehow always on neon paper, taped to pharmacy counters explained that supermarkets and drug stores were out of tests and couldn’t predict when they would be restocked. Following President Biden’s advice, I Googled where I could find a test nearby. The answer: rapid tests and PCR tests were unavailable at all CVS pharmacies around me in Johnson County. The shortage extended as far as the CVS calendar would allow me to search.

Testing, the most popular way of combating the virus, was sold out, the result of boundless demand.

However, this demand was predictable. While the Biden administration may claim that it was blindsided by omicron, experts long predicted mutations would allow for a more contagious strain — and perhaps one that could pierce the protections offered by vaccines.

From “The Daily” at the New York Times, correspondent Sherly Gay Stolberg explains how Biden’s team and private industry allowed the production of test kits to sag when we should have been stockpiling. She points out how the 500 million tests recently funded by the Biden administration will be a response that is both too small and too late. The variant’s nature and timing could not be predicted exactly, Gay Stolberg says, but the basic contours were clear.

With more robust testing, omicron would be less disastrous now.

For those questioning their symptoms or with close contacts, a series of negative tests along with a period of masking allows for normal life to continue. Robust testing discourages infected people from leaving the house and further spreading the virus. Instead, those who have symptoms and want to continue their daily lives have an excuse to do so: There aren’t enough tests.

Robust testing discourages infected people from leaving the house and further spreading the virus. Instead, those who have symptoms and want to continue their daily lives have an excuse to do so: There aren’t enough tests.

– Eric Thomas

Testing capacity has been too low for years. Experts have called for “cheap, mediocre” and ubiquitous testing since 2020. Michael Mina of Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health appeared during summer 2020 on at least two different podcasts explaining his faith in daily testing that could alert Americans to their infection status. The rationale was simple: People who know they are sick will spread the virus less often.

Why not provide free tests to all Americans? Consider the list of countries that provide free or subsidized testing: the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Malaysia and Germany. According to The Guardian, the government in Singapore sent 10 tests to each household between October and December, in addition to previous mailings of tests.

Instead, the Biden administration failed to do basic public health work to bolster testing during its first year. However, these kinds of missteps were a hallmark of President Donald Trump’s response. So it’s a bit rich to hear political commentators provide off-the-charts scores (9 out of 5 on the crisis index?) on last month’s National Review podcast. The failure to produce more testing is indeed a failure, but an isolated mistake, rather than part of a larger pattern, like Trump’s COVID denial and fumbling.

Regardless of the political scorekeeping, public health officials are without one of their key shields in the layered defense against the virus. At the start of the pandemic, we were armed with social distancing, masking, testing and surface disinfectant. Last year, we added vaccination. With all of those layers, our protections seemed strong.

But now, this variant is evasive, masks are divisive, social distancing seems quaint, disinfecting is toothless, and testing — our one trusted intervention — is elusive. The layered shield is frayed, if not shredded. Hence, the steep curve of infections in Kansas.

Below the bathroom sink I store my family’s stash of tests, waiting for a sniffling nose or plane ticket that calls for me to use one. They are my family’s passports, giving us permission to safely re-enter the world. They are also a passport that every American deserves at this moment.

Epilogue: All of the words above were written before I used a rapid testing kit Thursday evening. That kit told me I am COVID-positive. It also prevented me from getting on a plane and infecting the strangers sitting around me. That test also prevented me from infecting family and friends who would have met me at the end of that flight.

This is why we need easily available testing. Without it, I would have taken that flight.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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