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COVID-19 ISO Insights

How Accurate are Current Covid‑19 Infection Counts?

January 11, 2022

By Travis Decaminada

Key Takeaway: An increase of at-home Covid-19 testing, in conjunction with backlogs at in-person testing sites, reportedly has some health experts concerned that the current infection rates may not be accurate. Further, at-home tests themselves are not always 100% accurate. Ultimately, a new method of tracking Covid-19 cases may be needed.

Covid-19 infections are once again on the rise, largely due to the emergence of the omicron variant. Per NPR, the seven-day average count of Covid-19 cases within the United States recently broke 280,000, the highest it’s ever been. Hospitalizations are also on the rise, with the U.S. reportedly averaging around 9,000 a day. Thankfully, however, Covid-19 related deaths do not appear to be following the same trend. Per NPR, some health experts attribute the lower death rate to vaccines, as well as the omicron variant’s reportedly milder symptoms. Though, the article also notes that “hospitalizations tend to lag behind recorded cases,” and may increase in the coming weeks.

This is an important caveat, especially because new evidence reportedly suggests that as at-home tests become more ubiquitous, Covid-19 data collection efforts may suffer.

To Report or Not to Report

Per the New York Times, pharmacies have sold millions of at-home Covid-19 tests over the past few months, but the majority of people taking these tests do not report their status to public health departments. As stated in the article:

“At the minimum, the widespread availability of at-home tests is wreaking havoc with the accuracy of official positivity rates and case counts. At the other extreme, it is one factor making some public health experts raise a question that once would have been unthinkable: Do counts of coronavirus cases serve a useful purpose, and if not, should they be continued?”

Health experts quoted in the article lament the impact that at-home testing has had on data collection efforts, suggesting that a new method of tracking cases is needed. Moreover, municipalities reportedly rely on such data to make decisions about mask mandates and school closures, further increasing the data’s importance.

Though, at least one at-home test manufacturer has reportedly created a platform for customers to report their test results to health authorities. Further, per The Times, several local health departments have also set up systems to help people report their test results. However, experts still reportedly believe that the results of millions of tests are likely going unreported.

Accuracy of At-Home Tests

The article from The Times also speaks to the accuracy of at-home tests. Reportedly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement noting that while at-home tests can detect the omicron variant, they are not as effective at doing so as are laboratory tests.

A related article from NBC also addresses the issue. Per the article, at-home tests do indeed trade accuracy in exchange for speedy results. Further, at-home tests are reportedly most accurate when a person is already exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19, which limits their usefulness in some cases. What’s more, per NBC, at-home tests are more likely to produce a false negative when used on an asymptomatic individual.

Of note, regardless of the accuracy of at-home tests, NBC reports that many people may struggle to actually purchase a testing kit, as demand has dramatically outpaced supply, which has further increased demand for laboratory testing thus creating even longer delays in reporting results. Reportedly in an effort to combat the issue, the White House recently announced a plan to invest $3 billion towards increasing the production of testing kits. Further, per NBC, the White House is also expected to order some health insurance companies to begin reimbursing insureds for the cost of at-home tests.

See Also:

Information about at-home testing from the Centers for Diseases control and Prevention (CDC).

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