Why is COVID testing still so difficult in the United States?

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With the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Americans once again lament their struggle to access COVID-19 tests quickly and cheaply.

The series of rapid tests prompted pharmacies to launch ration kits, and there are long queues at the test sites in the big cities.

These difficulties stem in large part from the dependence on private industry during a public health crisis.

At the start of the pandemic, the federal government gave a lot of support to companies developing vaccines. But test? Not really.

These priorities have created uncertainty for manufacturers of COVID tests, per Lindsey Dawson, associate director at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Businesses were worried they wouldn’t have a market and in many ways this is a natural response from a private company with fiduciary responsibility and not public health,” she said.

That uncertainty came to a head this spring, after people started getting vaccinated – but before the delta variant arrived.

Dr Bob Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, said this prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discourage vaccinated Americans from getting tested, even if they had symptoms of COVID- 19.

“They thought if you are fully vaccinated you are not able to transmit the virus,” Wachter said.

The demand for testing has exploded. Some manufacturers have even reduced their production. But when the delta variant appeared, the CDC reversed and some companies started scaling up their operations again.

At times like this, Wachter said, it is essential that the private and public sectors work together. “It really has to be a partnership, and I think it has worked extraordinarily well with vaccines,” he said.

And many economists say passing the tests is key to supporting the economic recovery and preserving the progress made so far.


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