Experts concerned about dip in COVID-19 testing as some states begin to ease restrictions

Some experts are raising concerns that a decline in coronavirus testing being seen nationwide could put public health officials behind in detecting new waves or variants of the virus.

“Now is the time, really, to go looking for cases, to look for unusual trends, so that we aren’t blindsided when we are potentially so close to the end,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

During a virtual briefing by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Nuzzo said that will be harder to do as testing rates decline.

Nationwide, Nuzzo said daily COVID-19 testing rates are down by 20% since February.

Nuzzo said governments shifting their limited resources from testing to getting people vaccinated may be responsible for the dip.

“My very strong suspicion is that testing has taken a back seat,” she said.

She said governments need to keep testing a priority and maintain access to free testing for people exposed to the virus or exhibiting symptoms. She’d like to see testing levels return to what they were last year before the vaccines arrived.

She also said rapid testing could help take some of the strain off governments, but those tests need to be more widely available and inexpensive before that can happen.

Nuzzo said vaccinations don’t mean a person’s days of getting testing for the virus have come to a close. Vaccinated people should still get tested if they experience symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has the virus.

“There have been cases reported in people who have been previously vaccinated and testing enables us to gather more data on that,” Nuzzo said.

Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center, said he agrees that testing remains very important. The end of the pandemic, according to Moss, will be the number of infections dropping to very low rates, and that’s done by identifying cases and making sure those infected don’t spread it to others.

“We can manage that through testing,” Moss said.

In January, President Joe Biden said a part of his COVID-19 plan would include expanding testing supplies and increasing laboratory capacity. Nuzzo said those efforts need to be expedited.

Maryland ‘hasty’ with easing of restrictions

Asked about Maryland easing its restrictions and allowing businesses to reopen to full capacity, Nuzzo said right now the state is still seeing a dangerously high level of COVID-19 cases.

“In my view, many states — including Maryland — are being quite hasty in the relaxing of restrictions,” she said.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, bars and restaurants in the state have had capacity restrictions lifted, though they must only provide seated and socially-distanced service. Retail businesses, religious facilities, fitness centers, personal services and indoor recreational establishments have also seen capacity caps removed.

Nuzzo said public safety measures play a big role in reducing the spread of the virus and should remain for now.

“At least until we get to a point where more of us are protected from the vaccine — and the majority of us are not,” Nuzzo said.

She urges states to focus on easing restrictions first at lower risk venues. Restaurants and bars are considered higher risk.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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