As millions of Americans get vaccinated for COVID-19, many of us are starting to hope those painful nose swab tests will soon be a thing of the past.
Alas, the future of COVID-19 testing is more complicated than “less testing,” especially as we head into a potential fourth surge of cases. Testing is still a valuable tool in our COVID-19 prevention toolkit, but the technologies and motivations behind it are shifting. We’ll also have to shift our understanding of test results and metrics. To interpret the test numbers on the news or your local public health department’s website, there are two patterns you should think about: who will be tested less in the coming months and who will be tested more.
That first group is easier to predict: It’s those of us who have been vaccinated. As of April 11, more than one-third of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and one-fifth is fully vaccinated. While some experts are careful to specify that we don’t yet have data on whether the vaccines prevent coronavirus spread from one person to another, the data we do have suggest transmission is unlikely.
As a result, if you’ve been vaccinated and are experiencing cold or allergy symptoms, you probably won’t need to go get a PCR test just in case, as you might have had to do previously. And if you were getting tested every two weeks to check your COVID-19 status before you got vaccinated, you likely aren’t doing that as often, if at all. This will likely mean a decrease in what epidemiologists call diagnostic testing, tests that are used to provide an answer to a specific patient who suspects they have COVID-19.
“Some of the symptomatic testing is going down just because vaccines work,” says Mara Aspinall, diagnostic testing expert and managing director of the Health Catalysts Group. Still, “we can’t stop testing.” That’s especially true with concerning variants spreading across the country. At the individual level, tests are a tool to tell you if you have COVID-19; but at the community level, they can tell the local public health department how much coronavirus spread is currently taking place.
You can explore the need for continued testing through this modeling tool, developed by health tech company Color Health and University of Washington researchers Carl Bergstrom and Ryan McGee. Until the majority of a population is vaccinated, the model shows, we’ll need some level of regular testing. So we won’t necessarily see a huge drop in test numbers overall. Rather, more people may have the opportunity to get tested if they need it, and the way we use tests may change to a more community-centric mindset.
Read the full article in Slate.