There is no single most important element for effectively reducing the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating the damage it is doing to the public’s health and the nation’s economy.
As both national and Mississippi officials have repeatedly emphasized, some steps may be more important than others, but none of them will work very well in isolation.
Nevertheless, ranking right up near the top of importance has to be testing — not just plentiful in number but quick in turnaround.
Although the country has made great progress, after a slow start, on improving the quantity of COVID-19 tests, the labs apparently are not able to keep up with the increased volume during the recent surge in cases, even after expanding their capacities.
Because the most definitive COVID-19 tests started taking as long as two weeks to get results, people began gravitating toward the much quicker, if less accurate, tests, which provide an answer in an hour or so. The demand, however, for these “rapid response” tests has been so great that providers are running low on them. One nearby facility that has them, Tyler Holmes Memorial Hospital in Winona, last week had to change its policy and say that it will offer them only to people who are exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
When people who have been exposed but are asymptomatic can’t access testing, or when those who have symptoms have to wait many days to find out whether it’s COVID-19 or a more benign virus, it not only inconveniences those who might unnecessarily go into quarantine. It also increases the chances that those who are infected will pass it on to someone else.
A quick turnaround on tests is essential to doing the contract tracing that allows health care workers to identify who is infected, find out with whom the person has been in close contact recently, and track down those individuals so that they can be ordered into quarantine and tested. The longer it takes to get test results, the less beneficial contract tracing will be, as every day’s delay increases the number of people to whom one infected person may have transmitted the virus.
Although President Trump brags how well the nation’s testing is going, the reality is something else. Even as we get the volume near where it needs to be, a lot of the effort will be wasted if the results come back too slowly.