As winter and the omicron variant threaten another COVID-19 surge for West Virginia, state officials are urging anyone who exhibits symptoms to be tested for the virus.
Nationwide and in Charleston, rapid at-home testing kits are flying off store shelves, leading to shortages worsened by supply chain issues. Despite the demand, some questions remain on how to best utilize at-home testing and how the tool fits into COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
“The [rapid] at-home tests can be very useful if you’re traveling or trying to be cautious before attending a gathering and want to know your status,” said Dr. Sherri Young, interim health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “Testing is never a bad idea, but there are some limitations when it comes to [testing yourself].”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, some at-home tests on the market might not test for the omicron variant. Others, Young said, could test for any coronavirus — not just COVID-19. Some home tests — for those who take more than one — can yield mixed results.
“People could possibly be sick with something else, we’ve seen at least one case where that has happened. There is a chance, even if it’s low, you could get a false result,” Young said. “The best way to be sure you’re getting the most accurate results is to get a PCR [COVID-19] test from a health agency.”
If possible, people testing positive on at-home tests should get a PCR test to confirm the results. Young said this could help with more than confirming accuracy — if someone gets sick enough to need monoclonal antibody treatment, or they contract long-term side effects from COVID-19, a certified lab test might be necessary to access care and receive help paying for it.
If nothing else, those who receive positive results from an at-home test should call their health departments and self report the case, as well as alert any close contacts they’ve had leading up to the positive test result.
Some testing kits come with apps, where the user can upload their test results and the company automatically submits them to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s communicable-disease database.
To date, however, there is no uniform reporting mechanism for positive at-home tests outside of self-reporting, Young said.
“That is something we need to develop, and we haven’t yet,” Young said. “If we want to rely on at-home testing in the future — and I know people are working to make them more available because they are convenient — we are going to need to create a reporting mechanism so we can remain accurate.”
For those who are positive for COVID-19, the CDC now recommends a five-day isolation for anyone who is asymptomatic or who has symptoms that resolve quickly, followed by five days of strict mask wearing, to avoid potentially infecting others.
So far, Young said, the demand for at-home tests has not changed the number of people seeking out testing from the health department. At a drive-thru COVID-19 clinic at the health department Dec. 29, hundreds came for testing and vaccines. It was one of the largest turnouts the county health department had seen for those services in months.
“People are still coming here, going to the pharmacies and clinics to get tests. There was a lull but, actually, we’ve seen that go up in recent weeks, as people prepared for holiday travel and celebrations,” Young said. “That’s what we want to see — if you know you’re sick, you can take steps to stop others from getting sick. It’s an important tool to have.”
While the omicron variant circulates at a rate potentially three-times quicker than the delta variant, rapid tests allow results to be available in minutes, instead of days. As every county in West Virginia reports high community transmission of COVID-19, according to the CDC, Young said more testing could help control heightened spread, as people might not be aware that they’ve been exposed.
Dec. 29 saw the highest number of COVID-19 tests administered in West Virginia — 17,941 tests given — since Sept. 23. The state’s weekly average for COVID-19 tests remained relatively low between October and early December.
Young said testing rates regularly increase in the days and week before holidays. People might be going to events where they are more likely to be exposed. In a normal winter, cold weather moves gatherings indoors, where the airborne COVID-19 virus circulates easier.
As the state prepares for potentially another late-winter surge, Young said keeping home tests on hand for emergency use and quick turnaround isn’t a bad idea. Those using the tests, though, should be aware of potential limitations when deciding what test they should use.
Overall, if you start exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19, Young said, you should get a test.
“Don’t blame allergies, don’t assume it’s a cold or the flu, especially as we’re hearing omicron could start with more of those kinds of symptoms. Get a test and be sure,” Young said. “Testing and vaccinating are the best tools we have right now to get through this and save as many lives as possible. It’s our best chance of not overwhelming our hospitals. We all have responsibility in this pandemic, and we need people to do their part — get vaccinated, get your booster, and get tested.”