When someone learns they've tested positive for COVID, they might also discover that the news is surprisingly incomplete. As Insider reports, patients almost certainly will not learn which variant of the virus caught up with them. It's not because the lab can't figure it out—it's because federal rules prevent the lab from passing along the information. Kaiser Health News wrote about these "confusing" rules back in February, long before anyone ever heard of the delta variant. But the Insider report makes clear the situation has not been resolved, and critics say this isn't about mere curiosity on the part of patients. For example, if people learn they've been infected with the highly contagious delta, they might widen the circle of people they notify.
The issue revolves around the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service, which requires that the genome-sequencing tests used to detect variants be federally approved before labs can notify patients or their doctors of the specifics. Getting such approval is "burdensome," Kelly Wroblewki of the Association of Public Health Laboratories tells Insider. "It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of data. It takes a lot of resources," she says. "And the thing about the variants is that variants of concern and of interest are constantly changing, so you would have to do a whole validation every time you have a variant."
Kaiser described the issue as a "Catch-22" for the labs. In order to gain federal certification, they need lots of cases and thorough reviews of the results. But by the time all that is done, the variant in question is long gone. The lab association and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists have pressed the feds to relax the notification rules, but they haven't had any luck on that so far. Meaning, people will continue to get a "positive" or a "negative" test, but they likely won't learn much more beyond that. (The FDA gave full approval to Pfizer's vaccine on Monday, and the effects could be widespread.)