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Perspective: In the age of omicron, it’s time to change how we talk about COVID-19 testing

Mandated tests and mild cases are overloading hospitals and causing panic

Health care worker Bob Ekoh administers a COVID-19 test at City Hall in Herriman.
Health care worker Bob Ekoh administers a COVID-19 test at City Hall in Herriman on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Do you remember the reasoning for why we had to go on lockdown for two weeks in 2020? We were told it was to flatten the curve, to protect our hospitals from overload.

After that, the goal posts changed. We were never really told the reason why we had to drastically alter our daily lives, especially after several highly effective vaccines were made available to high-risk populations exactly a year ago.

Now in my area, Washington, D.C., we’re seeing stress on our health care system because of COVID-19, but not in the way one might think. Earlier this week, I received an email from Children’s National Hospital, the premier pediatric hospital in the nation’s capital, begging parents not to bring their children to the hospital for testing.

The email said the demand for hospital services surged after D.C. Public Schools ordered that every child in the system be tested Jan. 4 with an over-the-counter rapid antigen test and report a negative result to return to school. Incredibly, the hospital had to explain that it must prioritize services and testing for children who are sick. “We cannot serve as the test center for children without symptoms who need to get tested because of suspected exposure, return to school requirements, travel and other situations that do not require medical treatment.”

Why are parents taking healthy children to a hospital to get tested?

A doctor working in a local Washington, D.C.-area pediatric emergency department told me, “We are seeing families in the pediatric emergency room because the wait times are shorter than the adult emergency rooms; it’s two hours for us versus six hours for adults. When their kid tests positive, they assume they are (positive) as well. They need access to testing, and it’s our pediatric emergency room they’re using for it.”

It’s the same story in New York City, with the Manhattan Borough president tweeting,

In the days of the omicron variant, and with the wide availability of vaccines and boosters, it’s time to conduct some societal soul-searching about our obsession with testing. What is the goal and what are we accomplishing?

In the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear: We needed testing to prevent the spread, especially to vulnerable populations like nursing home residents and those susceptible to severe disease and death because of underlying conditions. But now, in 2022 with a variant running roughshod and an American people with access to vaccines and therapeutics, and not that much access to tests, especially in urban areas, what is the goal now?

Omicron is an extremely transmissible, and mercifully, by all reports, mild version of the virus. Over the course of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, it became impossible to count how many Americans were exposed or who contracted the virus. Coming off the holidays, though, schools and workplaces are requiring a negative test to return. This has placed enormous strain on urgent cares, pediatricians and primary care offices — and emergency rooms.

It’s not just the required testing that’s causing the system to buckle. It’s the panic.

Writing for The New York Times in March, David Leonhardt said, “Democrats are more likely to exaggerate the severity of Covid. When asked how often Covid patients had to be hospitalized, a very large share of Democratic voters said that at least 20 percent did. The actual hospitalization rate is between 1 percent and 5 percent. Democrats are also more likely to exaggerate Covid’s toll on young people and to believe that children account for a meaningful share of deaths.”

Even now, with record-breaking numbers of cases being reported, hospitalizations are about half what they were a year ago.

But the overestimation of risk, especially in light of vaccine effectiveness, is driving Americans to seek care at the emergency room, urgent care and doctor’s office — not just for testing, but also for treatment of mild cases. Across the country, hospitals are asking people with mild symptoms to stay home. In San Diego, Fox 5 reported, “Rady Children’s Hospital is asking the public not to show up to their emergency room just looking for a COVID-19 test for kids to return to school or even with mild symptoms. In a statement Monday, the hospital said the reason is to ‘prioritize patients with serious illness or injury.’”

Similar statements have been released by hospital systems in Virginia, Massachusetts and North Carolina, just to name a few.

In this new pandemic landscape, it’s time to change how we’re talking about — and managing — testing and COVID-19 infection. Our vigilance began out of an abundance of caution in order to protect our health care system from strain and collapse. But now it’s that same caution that’s creating incredible strain across the country.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and an editor at Ricochet.com.