Rapid COVID-19 testing still scarce a year later

COVID: Then and Now

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — From the beginning of the outbreak, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, like his counterparts everywhere, stressed that testing was the foundation for preventing and responding to COVID-19.

“We need to test more people so that we can find the few people that have this infection,” he said at the time.

But tests were difficult to get. Like the mask shortage, there weren’t enough simple supplies, like swabs. Lab capacity was limited to a long turnaround time for results, and tests were rationed by risk group.

Foreshadowing the headache of vaccine distribution, people tussled for testing appointments and waited in long lines.

“First priority are health care workers who have symptoms,” said Farley. “We will turn away people who don’t meet our criteria.”

FEMA hastily set up a drive-thru testing site at Citizens Bank Park. It shut down due to bad weather, then permanently closed because of a lack of funds.

But the situation eased. More and newer tests became available, including rapid tests. In fact, some scientists believe everyone should be able to test at home — a cheap option that is still widely unavailable to the general public.

The main test we’ve used to diagnose COVID-19 — PCR testing — is great, said Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, but it can never give a realistic snapshot of actual COVID-19 cases. So, he said it’s pretty much worthless when it comes to tracking the spread of the virus for public health and containment purposes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC said there have been 352 million PCR tests — just about more than one per person. Mina said that’s not nearly enough.

The cheap, in-home tests he recommends are reliable, especially when you factor in frequency.

“Had we had these tests out toward the end of last summer, we could have potentially mitigated much of the devastation we have seen over the fall and winter,” he estimated.

But the FDA stands in the way because it has a “paternalistic view of medicine,” said Mina, and no concept of public health testing. Other countries adopted the rapid, cheap tests successfully, but he’s been unable to change the mindset in the U.S.

“We have to look at what is happening today, which is nothing,” he continued.

Putting at-home rapid tests on the market is a step in the right direction, but the cheapest one so far is $25 and requires a prescription. “No one should need a prescription at this point in the pandemic.”

There’s still a significant need for testing, even with the distribution of the vaccine — especially while it’s not widely available for all.

“They’re still needed now, and they’re probably going to be needed when cases re-emerge and we have another surge in the fall,” Mina predicted.

COVID: Then and Now is a KYW Newsradio original monthlong series looking back at the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in Philadelphia. Reporters revisit the news from exactly one year ago and examine how protocols, restrictions and science have evolved since then. Check back weekdays in March for more.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images