Should asymptomatic people get tested for COVID-19?

should asymptomatic people get tested coronavirus
Photo via NIH Image Gallery/Flickr (Public Domain)
  • The CDC changed its recommendations for testing asymptomatic people
  • The department no longer urges asymptomatic people to get tested
  • Experts fear this could worsen the spread of COVID-19

The CDC’s recommendations regarding asymptomatic carriers of the COVID-19 virus changed on Aug. 24. Previously, as the country fought to control the pandemic, everyone who suspected they may have been exposed was urged to get a test. With a test, even asymptomatic people—who would not otherwise know they were carriers—could quarantine themselves and prevent further spread of the virus. So, should asymptomatic people get tested for the coronavirus now? 

According to the CDC’s original shift in its recommendations, only those people experiencing symptoms should get tested, due to an increased demand for tests. But in mid-September, the CDC flip-flopped again, saying that if somebody was in close contact with an infected person for at least 15 minutes, they need to get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.

The CDC changed its guidelines without pomp and circumstance. No formal announcement was made, but the recommendation listed on its website now states the following: “If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have 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.”

That was a leap from previous guidelines, which aimed to broaden testing to determine risk areas and to keep transmission to a minimum. Public health experts criticized the change for its potential to worsen the anticipated fall wave (and for making a potential twindemic even worse). British Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said in September that people who don’t have symptoms shouldn’t get tested.

Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, noted that if asymptomatic people aren’t tested, it could make contact tracing efforts, which help track the virus’ spread, effectively pointless.

“The most recent guidelines seem to give up any pretense of using contact tracing to control COVID,” he said. “The whole point of contact tracing is to find asymptomatic contacts of known cases and isolate them. If you aren’t even going to test them? Certainly no point in tracing.”

The origin of the shift in recommendations was unclear. The New York Times cited two federal health officials who claimed the order came as a directive from the White House and Department of Health and Human Services. The decision appeared to have been at least in part prompted by the White House’s coronavirus task force. Sources say the president did not personally push for the change, even though President Trump has said the country should test fewer people

Three Democratic governors—Gavin Newsom in California, Jay Inslee in Washington, and Andrew Cuomo in New York—said they wouldn’t follow those now outdated CDC recommendations. CNBC also reported that Abbott Laboratories was still undergoing trials on quick-result COVID-19 tests to see if they could be used on asymptomatic people.

The timing of the original decision had experts worried. Schools around the country have begun to open, and we’ve already seen waves of unmasked students in packed halls, dorms, and attending parties. Asymptomatic people are considered the primary culprits in the virus’ continued spread, most doing so without their knowledge. Without access to testing, no asymptomatic carriers will be aware of the danger they pose. That’s apparently how fitness guru Jillian Michaels caught the coronavirus—while at a public gym with a close friend who was asymptomatic.

Sources: CDC, The Hill, Department of Health, New York Times

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