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Omicron: COVID testing vital to ‘cool the rapid increase in cases,’ USF epidemiologist says

That is, if you can get your hands on a testing kit.

Lindsey Leake
Treasure Coast Newspapers
  • Reporting at-home test results to health department is your responsibility
  • Florida infections spiked 8% the week of Dec. 24-30
  • Omicron responsible for vast majority of cases nationwide

No one wants to start 2022 with a COVID-19 infection. Whether you’re vaccinated and suspect you may have a breakthrough case or unvaccinated and worry the pandemic finally has caught up with you, testing can be a hassle.

Particularly if you’re symptomatic, you may not feel up to venturing out even for a drive-thru test. If you’re asymptomatic but quarantining at home after a known exposure, for example, affordable self-testing kits may not be readily available.

Still, if you can safely access reliable testing, go for it, public health experts advise.

“The issue with testing is to break the community transmission chain, given the highly transmissible omicron variant,” said Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. 

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► Omicron: First case of COVID-19 variant in Florida confirmed in St. Lucie

Scientists continue to study omicron, which the World Health Organization declared a variant of concern in November. It’s thought to be extremely infectious and potentially less vulnerable to vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments than previous variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Omicron accounted for 0.6% of national cases the week ending Dec. 4 and 95% the week ending Jan. 1, the CDC Data Tracker shows. 

The first case in the state was documented in St. Lucie County in December, the Florida Department of Health confirmed. The agency doesn’t publicly report variant spread throughout the Sunshine State; the USA Today Network–Florida periodically has obtained the data through public records requests, but DOH has been mum since omicron’s arrival.

All the more reason to get tested if you suspect you have the coronavirus, Michael said.

DOH’s weekly COVID-19 reports no longer are as detailed as they were during the first year of the pandemic, but savvy readers at least can use them to calculate infection rates.

Statewide, there were over 3.8 million cases the week ending Dec. 23. A week later, there were over 4.1 million. It’s possible that includes a post-Thanksgiving data dump. Even so, if the sick aren’t tested, the ongoing winter spike in cases potentially is a life-threatening underestimation.

Testing is “the only immediate circuit breaker available to cool the rapid increase in cases,” Michael said.

Why should I get a COVID test?

If you knew your county was in the midst of a coronavirus surge, would you send your children to school? Think twice about going to the grocery store maskless? Prioritize your booster shot? Reconsider getting vaccinated altogether?

People are unable to make such informed decisions when the data don’t accurately reflect community transmission, said University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins.

“[Testing] is helpful for us to understand the scope of what’s going on,” said Prins, who teaches in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions. “The health department can then advise people on what they’re supposed to do after they test positive.”

Symptomatic or not, you should get tested five days after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, according to the CDC’s latest guidance. If you got your booster shot, there’s no need to quarantine but you should wear a mask for 10 days. If you’re unvaccinated or haven’t received a booster, the CDC recommends a five-day quarantine followed by five days of masking up.

Regardless of whether you’ve been exposed, get tested if you’re showing symptoms.

“Take a test before you gather,” Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stressed in a Dec. 27 statement.

But what if you can’t find a test?

Ladapo: Don’t plan your life around COVID testing

Lately, asymptomatic Floridians have been crowding COVID-19 testing sites and emptying drug stores of over-the-counter test kits — according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“You want to test in order to get a clinical outcome and that has got to be readily available for anybody,” he said during a news conference Monday at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, “particularly our vulnerable populations who are infected.” 

The governor also pointed fingers at the federal government, saying it hasn’t followed through on securing adequate at-home tests for Florida.

► Forgo testing?: DeSantis urges asymptomatic Floridians to skip COVID tests

No matter who’s to blame, the omicron wave has spurred an increased demand for testing. Clinics from Tallahassee to Fort Myers to Fort Pierce have been jammed. At-home kits — from the $9.99 Flowflex antigen test to the $124.99 Pixel by Labcorp PCR test — all were sold out on the CVS Pharmacy website as of midday Tuesday.

Floridians are in a tough position, Prins said. While testing is critical to contact-tracing and, therefore, the good of public health, limited availability means people should think twice about whether they need to be tested or not. And people who are asymptomatic but undergo routine testing for work or school ironically open themselves up to exposure if they frequent crowded facilities.

“To what extent are we now getting people to gather just to get tested?” Prins said. “If you’re a person who works from home … you may want to decide that you’re just going to stay home and assume you have COVID.”

She added, “Don’t panic if you can’t get that test right now — as long as you’re able to isolate away from other people.”

Despite DeSantis referring to the testing situation as a “crunch,” surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo encouraged Floridians not to get caught up in “testing psychology.”

“We need to unwind this … planning and living one’s life around testing,” he said during Monday’s news conference. “It’s really time for people to be living.”

Should I notify someone if my at-home COVID test is positive?

If you’re deemed COVID-positive at a testing site, the hosting health organization is required by law to report your results. If you manage to snag an at-home test and are positive, the burden falls on you, said Renay Rouse, spokesperson for DOH-Martin.

“If you’re doing it the way you’re supposed to be doing it, you’re using a proctor (such as a smartphone app), and those results are being reported to the health department,” she said.

The more reputable over-the-counter tests should come with instructions for properly reporting results, Rouse said. If not, contact your local DOH office.

Lindsey Leake is TCPalm's health, welfare and social justice reporter. She has a master's in journalism and digital storytelling from American University, a bachelor's from Princeton and is a science writing graduate student at Johns Hopkins. Follow her on Twitter @NewsyLindsey, Facebook @LindseyMLeake and Instagram @newsylindsey. Call her at 772-529-5378 or email her at lindsey.leake@tcpalm.com.