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How COVID-19 screening of asymptomatic people could decrease infections, deaths and costs long-term

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) recently published findings in Clinical Infectious Diseases about COVID-19 testing.

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Adriana Sanchez, medical assistant and teacher’s assistant at Esperanza Elementary School, puts on protective gear before assisting at a COVID-19 test site at Esperanza Elementary School in West Valley City on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Testing for asymptomatic coronavirus casescould help slow the spread and end the high amount of deaths across the country, according to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.

What’s going on:

Researchers said in a paper for Clinical Infectious Diseases that COVID-19 testing is largely done for those who have symptoms of the coronavirus.

  • Restricted testing is fairly common across the country.
  • But making COVID-19 testing widely available to all people — including those who don’t have symptoms — “could reduce hospitalizations and deaths, allowing for safe resumption of economic and social activity,” the researchers said, according to a press release.

How they found this:

The researchers used a dynamic transmission model to “to analyze the outcomes anticipated from several different strategies for COVID-19 testing and screening for the entire population of Massachusetts,” according to a press release.

  • The analysis “revealed that repeated screening of the entire population would lead to the most favorable clinical outcomes, preventing the greatest number of infections, hospitalizations, and, ultimately, deaths.”
  • The findings were true in multiple scenarios, where the analysis showed improved testing would identify multiple cases per day.

The cost of testing:

The researchers said the most cost-effective strategy includes testing only people with symptoms for COVID-19.

Co-senior author Andrea Ciaranello said testing costs could be brought down by “using emerging techniques such as less expensive reagents, pooling of specimens in the lab, or carefully allocating unused testing capacity across cities or regions.”

  • Improved testing might help stop people from getting infected, which means less people would need to use tests long-term, the researchers said.

The researchers said it’s important to improve testing capacity in order to stop the spread.

  •  ”It is important to note that these strategies involve repeated screening,” Ciaranello said. “Screening a group of people just one time, while an interesting snapshot, is an approach that will miss many people who will become able to infect others in the future. Because of this, we also found that screening just once was a less efficient use of healthcare resources under most circumstance than strategies using repeat testing.”