AUSTIN (Nexstar) — While omicron cases continue to surge, researchers are looking ahead, proposing a solution that could help mitigate risks with future COVID-19 variants.
A new study by the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium shows mass proactive testing might help curb future surges. It urges public health officials to track both transmission rates and community immunity, and adjust testing frequency accordingly.
“If a rapidly spreading variant emerges in a partially immunized population, the researchers recommend testing everyone at least once per week combined with a 10-day isolation of people who test positive and their households,” a release from the consortium reads.
Then, once immunity increases to a certain amount, which is based on that variant’s severity and transmissibility, testing can be rolled back to once monthly.
For example, for a variant as infectious and immune-evasive as omicron, meaning it can still infect those fully vaccinated, daily testing is advised until 70% of the population is immunized against the variant, followed by monthly testing until 80% are immunized.
The researchers said this would be a cost-effective way to avoid shut-downs and keep people from missing work and school due to illness.
This would require widely-available at-home rapid tests, which are currently difficult to come by, which means production would need to start massively ramping up now. But, there are caveats to these tests.
“If we did have a ready supply, a big advantage is that you can do them at home. But they do have limitations, particularly for people that do not have symptoms, they’re not as sensitive as the molecular or the PCR test,” Dr. Jan Patterson, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 Task Force with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio said.
The UT study also depends on everyone who tests positive to adhere to a 10-day isolation period,
“It seems to me there’s a significant portion of the population that just doesn’t want to engage in the conversation related to COVID, don’t want to amend behaviors,” Dr. Rodney Young, the Regional Chair of Family and Community Medicine with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center said.
“As long as we have a large subset of the population that still will not engage with any of these mitigation strategies, it’s going to be hard for us to realize the potential benefits of all of the steps that we’re taking. But each step in the right direction is a step in the right direction,” Dr. Young said.
Even with increased at-home testing, vaccination efforts remain a top priority.
“About 62% of eligible people in in Texas are fully vaccinated, but only a third of those have had their booster. So it’s still a good idea to go out and get your booster,” Dr. Patterson said.
Testing Supply Issues
The federal government has allocated 500 million tests to send to households across the country, and said it’s continuing efforts to ramp up production.
But those federal procurements are getting in the way of local pharmacies in Texas trying to stock up on their own at-home testing.
The federal government has also taken weeks to launch FEMA-run testing sites in Texas, which the state requested at the end of last month.
“The Texas Division of Emergency Management has been working with local officials to fill the testing gap we’ve seen across our state due to the slow rollout of federal testing sites that we requested from FEMA at the end of December,” a spokesperson for TDEM said Wednesday.
“The State of Texas will continue to prioritize the provision of testing supplies & capabilities to communities across our state, including Travis County, as requested by local officials to meet the need until the federal government opens the sites they have approved,” the spokesperson continued.
Some of those FEMA testing sites are opening this week, including those in Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Hidalgo counties, while those in Travis and Webb counties still have not officially been approved.