Do Daily Case Counts Even Matter Anymore?

Millions of rapid tests might be going unreported every day, raising questions of accuracy
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 30, 2021 11:16 AM CST
The Many Problems With COVID Testing
In this photo taken by a drone, cars wait in long lines at a drive-up COVID-19 testing center at Tropical Park in Miami on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Omicron has led to a record number of new daily cases in the US—north of 265,000—but is the number even relevant anymore? That's the question raised by a New York Times story, one of many exploring the current problems with testing and case counts:

  • Key question: At-home test kits that provide quick results are selling out quickly in stores and online, but the reporting of results to health authorities is largely voluntary. As a result, an expert at Arizona State University estimates that millions of tests per day might be going unreported. The government, meanwhile, bases its guidance on case counts. The Times' Sophie Kasakove sums up the controversial prospect of all this now being discussed in public-health circles: "Do counts of coronavirus cases serve a useful purpose, and if not, should they be continued?"

  • Amplifying that: "Our entire approach to the pandemic has been case-based surveillance: We have to count every case, and that's just not accurate anymore," says Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "It's just becoming a time where we've got to think about doing things differently." That could mean shifting away from frequent case reporting and adopting more of a "sentinel surveillance" system used with diseases such as the flu. Under this system, national numbers are extrapolated from smaller case numbers.
  • Another problem: This week, the FDA warned that widely used rapid tests (as opposed to PCR molecular tests done in a lab) might not detect omicron as well as previous variants. It's the "latest complication for anyone trying to strike a common-sense balance between being vigilant and returning to normalcy as the country approaches the third year of the pandemic," per the Washington Post.
  • The crunch: Demand for tests of all kinds is soaring, resulting in empty shelves and long lines at testing centers, per the Wall Street Journal. That has critics faulting the White House for the crunch. "The US is once again a day late and a dollar short in responding to the pandemic," says Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Meanwhile, secondary markets for rapid tests are popping up on eBay and elsewhere.
  • One view: At CNN, Stephen Collinson writes in an analysis that the surging numbers, combined with indications that the variant is causing less severe cases, appear to be already forcing a shift in US COVID policy. The "fact that for most Americans—especially those who are vaccinated and boosted—omicron could prove more a nuisance than a serious threat to health has naturally raised the question of whether a new way of tackling the pandemic is needed, at least until a more serious variant comes along," he writes. "In short, is it time simply for more people to get on with their lives with less disruption?"
(More COVID-19 stories.)

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