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Pandemic or Not, We Need More COVID-19 Preparedness
By Gary Frazier
Published October 20, 2022

Gary Frazier (Courtesy photo)

President Biden declared the pandemic is over, then quickly backtracked. Unfortunately, his premature word choice undermines the ongoing efforts to prepare the country for future outbreaks. Even before the statement, Congress denied funding to prepare America for the next outbreak.

However, Coronavirus scenarios from multiple research teams acknowledge that a new variant could once again increase the size and severity of the anticipated late fall surge in the United States.

Now is the time to increase our readiness. Instead, we’re dismantling our ability to monitor the spread of variants.

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Surveillance Undermined

We have the data to confirm that about 400 people die daily from the virus, and up to 23 million Americans are living with long COVID. However, we’ve lost track of how many people are infected at any given time.

The shift to at-home testing caused the volume of gold-standard PCR tests to plummet, eliminating access to data needed to detect new variants, inform residents and prepare our medical infrastructure.

Without preparedness funding, our country lacks the testing capacity needed during an outbreak. During the Omicron variant surge, laboratories struggled to handle tens of millions of additional tests, leading to results that took as long as 10 days. The inefficiencies of directing the majority of diagnostic tests to a few centralized laboratories rippled through the healthcare system.

We are in an even worse position now than when Omicron arrived. Today, U.S. laboratories can only process 62 million PCR tests a month, half of the capacity we had this spring. Production of at-home test kits continues to drop with waning demand. Yet, when variants appear, manufacturing capacity cannot ramp up as quickly as the need, resulting in empty shelves.

Access Denied

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Testing is the gateway to antiviral treatments, which are most effective if administered in the early days of infection. However, access to testing continues to be reduced.

When Congress rebuffed the White House’s request for $22.5 billion in additional COVID funding in March, programs that served our country’s neediest populations during the pandemic shut down.

First, the $18 billion Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Uninsured Program was shuttered due to lack of funding, ending universal access to PCR testing.

Worksite Labs witnessed the immediate impact at our community sites, where 98% of visitors lack insurance. At our South Los Angeles community site, residents can access PCR tests processed onsite within 24 hours, vaccinations and free medical screenings. As soon as an out-of-pocket cost was associated with the PCR test, the number of residents who sought testing dwindled from an average of 100 people per day to just three per day.

Last month, the free at-home antigen test program was suspended. Now, many of the roughly 26 million uninsured individuals in the United States may forgo testing altogether. And without testing, our neediest populations relinquish access to treatments that could prevent hospitalization.

Whether you think the pandemic is over or not, now is the time to build a better laboratory testing system and ensure everyone has access to the testing they need – when they need it.

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Gary Frazier is the founder and chief executive officer at Worksite Labs, a diagnostic testing company with a national network of labs, based in Long Beach, California.

Categories: COVID-19 | News | Op-Ed | Opinion
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