“You know that metaphor that people say, ‘If you’re going for a touchdown, don’t spike the ball at the 5-yard line. Wait until you get into the end zone,'” – Anthony Fauci
As statewide efforts to vaccinate more Arizonans continue and the economy begins to reopen, it is easy to forget that we are still within the worst pandemic of the last hundred years. Although there is great reason for the widespread hope of normalcy the vaccines will bring, we must also remember that we are not yet in the end zone. Given the unknown length of time that vaccines will be effective, emerging strains of concerning variants and large rates of vaccine hesitancy, it is unclear exactly how this pandemic will play out. One thing we do know, however, is that as we try to return to normal, adding regular COVID screening to our current standard COVID mitigation efforts will help keep our community safe and avoid additional lockdowns.
For the past year, my team and I have been focused on educating organizations and leaders about the outsized benefit regular COVID testing can provide. With a proper protocol in place, regular COVID testing drastically limits the size of outbreaks and allows places like schools and large businesses to resume in-person operations. In fact, we believed so much in the power of testing that we built our own high-throughput COVID testing laboratory in Scottsdale to provide much needed accurate, quick, and affordable testing to our community. Although we have made significant progress, there is still much work to do.
Slowing Down Community Spread
We have learned alot about COVID over the past year and the impact of mitigation strategies to the community. Most people are familiar with hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, but surprisingly few are aware of how regular COVID testing of asymptomatic people can allow large groups of people to return to in-person activity. One of the earliest adopters of mass asymptomatic testing is the Broad Institute of MIT/Harvard. In March of 2020, the Broad converted their large genomics center into a high-throughput COVID testing lab. Since then they have performed more than 16 million COVID tests for hundreds of east coast universities, hospitals and nursing homes. The amazing result was a near -1% positivity rate within regularly tested institutions even while the surrounding community positivity rate soared over 10%. Other great examples of organizations effectively using asymptomatic testing include the NBA, NFL, MLB and major motion pictures. Although operations have been significantly altered, these organizations have been able to resume quasi-normal activity in relative safety by enacting a regular testing protocol.
The main benefit of regularly testing everyone in an organization is that it allows for the identification of infected individuals before they begin to develop symptoms. It is believed that people are most contagious in the days before they begin exhibiting symptoms and even more concerning is that up to 40% of infected individuals won’t have any symptoms at all. By performing regular testing (twice a week, once a week, etc), organizations can catch outbreaks before they begin and implement quarantines of infected and exposed individuals before significant damage is done.
Major Events and Conferences
As large group events, concerts, and sporting events reconvene, the chances for super-spreader events also returns. Fortunately, with the proper implementation of testing, we can switch those paper cutouts for real life fans. By implementing mandatory COVID testing for attendees, venues will be able to create a safe and temporary NBA “bubble” type experience for guests, attendees and staff. Venues are currently experimenting with a variety of testing regimens such as a highly sensitive PCR test within 72-hours of the game or rapid antigen testing on-site prior to the event. Both regimens have pros and cons and the increasing availability and affordability are making either option a possibility.
As consumer confidence builds and pent up demand for international travel increases, a growing number of Arizonans are seeking assistance navigating the various COVID testing requirements of their final destination. For the near future, testing will be required for international travel until worldwide vaccination numbers increase and scientists are certain about vaccine efficacy against new variants.
COVID testing and documentation requirements are constantly changing and fluctuate significantly by country resulting in a confusing and chaotic experience for travelers. The major variable requirements include the type of test needed (RT-PCR, PCR, Rapid Antigen), how soon the test is needed before arrival (48-96 hours), and the information required on your COVID travel certificate (fit-to-fly document).
The one variable that has not changed is a testing requirement.
The bottom line: frequent, affordable, and accessible testing will be critical as we enter this new era of managing the COVID-19 virus. We need to embrace and normalize testing rather than assuming we no longer need it. In order to successfully enter a “post-COVID” world, we need to continue our testing efforts.
Dr. Jesse Greer is the Founder of Saguaro Bloom.