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America is flunking its COVID testing

The country needs to do a better job of making tests available and producing results in a timely manner.

Medical assistant Tyla Wilson collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample to test for COVID-19 for 15-year-old Brianna Green at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side on Jan. 5.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As the number of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 tops last winter’s peak, the nation needs to do a better job of distributing and administering tests.

Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests detect viral RNA and are the most reliable indicators of a coronavirus infection.

But at a time of the fast-spreading omicron variant, the long waits many people endure to get results render the tests virtually worthless. If results finally show up a week after a test was performed, for example, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to meet with others. You could have picked up the virus in the meantime.

Rapid antigen tests, which look for proteins on the surface of the virus, are not as accurate at some stages of infection but provide quicker results.

Omicron has caused a huge shortage of COVID tests. Americans have been hounding stores and websites to find at-home tests or waiting in long lines at test sites. Several weeks since omicron spread through the country, there’s no sign that cases and hospitalizations are starting to come down. As of Monday, 25,742 people were hospitalized in Illinois.

Vaccinations help protect from serious illness. But tests are needed to ensure vaccinated people with breakthrough cases don’t unknowingly spread the virus.

The Biden administration will begin distributing 500 million rapid COVID tests later this month, and starting Saturday, private insurers will have to cover the costs of up to eight over-the-counter at-home tests a month.

But Dr. Michael Daignault, chief medical adviser at the testing company Reliant Health Services, told us it would be more effective for the government to pay for the tests upfront rather than require people to apply for cumbersome insurance reimbursements.

Because it’s hard to find home tests and because lines are long at health clinics, some people turn to “pop-up“ sites, but even there people often have to wait too long for results. Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday warned of “fly-by-night” pop-ups that take no responsibility for how long it takes to get results. Block Club Chicago reported two weeks ago that results from some pop-ops never arrive; some workers don’t wear masks or gloves; and some pop-ups try to charge for the tests, which are supposed to be free.

Testing is an important way to keep the virus from spreading so quickly that health care services are overwhelmed. The nation needs to do a better job of making tests available and producing results in a timely manner.

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