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We can’t forget about testing in the fight against COVID

May 25, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 1, 2021.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP—Getty Images

With nearly 150 million Americans vaccinated, we are beginning to see a light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel. People are slowly returning to some semblance of normal life—visiting with grandparents, sending kids to school in person, and planning vacations. But as we look to the months and years ahead, we must continue to be vigilant about doing all we can now to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Vaccinations alone will not get us through this. It is critical to continue testing for the virus as vaccine hesitancy stands in the way of herd immunity; as new, more contagious variants continue to evolve and spread; and as we learn more about the long-term effectiveness of vaccines. (BD manufactures and sells a wide variety of products for the safe collection and transportation of diagnostic specimens, as well as instruments and reagent systems to accurately detect a broad range of infectious diseases, infections, and cancers—including COVID-19.)

While herd immunity is the goal, many medical experts maintain that it is unlikely in the foreseeable future—and it’s more realistic to reduce the virus to a manageable threat. Broader testing efforts, which would include testing asymptomatic people, are likely to remain necessary to ensure an office building, a school, or a sports team is truly safe.

As an example, just recently, nine vaccinated members of the New York Yankees tested positive for COVID-19. (Two were symptomatic.) While the approved COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, none of them are 100% effective at avoiding an infection altogether—and if you’re infected, you can spread the illness whether you are sick or not. 

That’s why testing matters. Major League Baseball’s testing program was key to detecting the virus in this instance, and helping to minimize further spread.

In the U.S., we have yet to define how often to test, how often data should be reported, or how frequently individuals should be tested to be declared negative. Without a clear, consistent standard of government-enforced guidelines for such settings, the health of the public—and our return to normal life—is threatened. 

Over time, COVID-19 testing will inevitably slow as the rate of new cases falls. But for the near future, it remains one of the best preventative tools by identifying any ongoing spread and keeping schools, businesses, and other parts of regular life safely open.

This is a critical time in our fight against COVID. The Biden administration deserves praise for taking important steps to increase testing and testing resources across the country. Under the President’s national strategy for responding to COVID, more than $12 billion will be invested in helping dramatically increase testing in schools to support safe, in-person learning, as well as increasing testing among underserved populations.

The Department of Health and Human Services will soon be providing new guidance on asymptomatic screening testing in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings, which will be helpful as more public spaces begin to reopen. As next steps, it will be critical to set and maintain a defined standard of testing upheld by the government.

As an example of where these guidelines matter most, local schools can keep students, teachers, and administrators safe by supporting rapid, serial testing on campus. The Rockefeller Foundation recommends using both polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and rapid antigen testing, and especially recommends ongoing, serial testing for students and teachers—plus vaccinations—to return to fully operational, in-person learning.

Various colleges, universities, and K-12 schools across the country are using serial rapid antigen testing as a key preventative measure to help minimize the spread of COVID. These schools are testing their students, athletes, teachers, and staff to instill a sense of confidence at their newly opened classrooms, lecture halls, and sports fields.

And while many employers may continue remote working models, over time, many workplaces are likely to evolve to a hybrid approach of at-the-office and remote working. As this happens, some businesses may decide to use testing as a component of keeping workplaces monitored and safe. 

For those that do, some may choose to implement an at-the-office testing program similar to those at schools, while others may provide at-home tests that employees can do before they come to work. These at-home tests are becoming more widely available and are as easy to use as at-home pregnancy tests—yielding results in about 15 minutes.

While it is uplifting to see the trend line of positive cases drop in many parts of the country, there are still outbreaks in the U.S. and other parts of the world that should motivate us to remain vigilant. Governments the world over should play an important role in issuing clear guidance on how testing should be regulated and leveraged as a top preventative measure. 

As we continue to learn about the long-term effectiveness of vaccines, and as efforts to get people vaccinated evolve and continue, testing will keep playing a critical role as we fight COVID-19.

Dave Hickey is executive vice president and president of the Life Sciences segment of BD (Becton, Dickinson, and Company), a global medical technology company. 

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