Health experts frustrated with new CDC coronavirus testing guidelines

A healthcare provider administering a COVID-19 test at a drive-through.

In an abrupt switch, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its COVID-19 testing guidance to say that being exposed to a person with the disease doesn’t necessarily warrant a test if you’re not in a high-risk group or showing any symptoms. 

But public health officials are criticizing this sudden change, which a federal health official told CNN was a result of pressure from upper ranks of the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has previously said that less COVID-19 testing would lead to fewer cases, but Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Adm. and Dr. Brett Giroir told CNN that the point of the new guidance wasn’t to do “less” testing, but more “appropriate” testing.

Previously, the CDC website recommended that all close contacts of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, get tested. “Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested,” the guidance read. 

Now, the CDC guidance says that if you’ve been within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of a COVID-19-positive person for at least 15 minutes but don’t have any symptoms, “you do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one.”

In a statement to CNN, Giroir said the guidance was updated “to reflect current evidence and best public health practices, and to further emphasize using CDC-approved prevention strategies to protect yourself, your family, and the most vulnerable of all ages.” 

But current evidence on COVID-19 transmission has not changed: The virus continues to infect many people who don’t end up developing any symptoms, and who can silently spread the disease to others. 

“These testing recommendations make no scientific sense, unless there are plans to demand isolation of all known contacts of COVID-19,” said Krys Johnson, an assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Temple University in Pennsylvania. 

It’s not clear what percentage of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic; some estimates say around 10 to 20%, but the CDC estimates about 40%. “If each of these people goes about their daily lives, this pandemic will continue to impact our country and daily lives for the foreseeable future, regardless of the advent of a vaccine,” Johnson told Live Science in an email.

Since March, “we have continued to see inadequate testing,” she said. With schools and universities opening across the country, especially in hot spots, testing of asymptomatic people has become more important, not less, she said. Anyone who has been or may have been near someone with COVID-19 should be able to access a test — and those tests need to be reported within 48 hours for contact tracers to inform infected people and their contacts, she said.

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“It is unconscionable that recommendations, which should follow only the science, are being modified to enable [maybe even ensure] underreporting of COVID-19 cases at this critical juncture,” she added.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also condemned the decision. “The only plausible rationale is they want fewer people taking tests because, as the president has said, if we don’t take tests you won’t know that people are COVID-positive and the number of COVID-positive people will come down,” Cuomo said in a call with reporters on Wednesday (Aug. 26). “But it totally violates public health standards and rationale, and just fosters his failed policy of denial,” Cuomo said.

“This will not be the policy of the state of CA,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) tweeted on Wednesday. Other state and local health officials agreed. “I actually didn’t believe it, for it seemed entirely bizarre,” California’s Santa Clara County public health director Sara Cody said on Wednesday, according to the San Jose Mercury News. “The truth is that if you’ve been in contact with someone who is infected with COVID, you absolutely need to get a test.”

Originally published on Live Science.


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