Researchers say that testing half of the population for COVID-19 weekly and using cheaper, rapid tests could reduce the infectiousness of the virus by 80% and drive the virus toward elimination within weeks.
In a new study published Friday in Science Advances, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard University said this practice could not only reduce the surges occurring around the country, but also keep schools and businesses open.
“Our big picture finding is that, when it comes to public health, it’s better to have a less sensitive test with results today than a more sensitive one with results tomorrow,” said lead author Daniel Larremore, an assistant professor of computer science at CU Boulder.
“Rather than telling everyone to stay home so you can be sure that one person who is sick doesn’t spread it, we could give only the contagious people stay-at-home orders so everyone else can go about their lives."
“Personalized stay-at-home orders” could avoid the shutting down restaurants, bars, retail stores and schools, the study said.
Larremore teamed up with scientists from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health to determine which was most important in reducing infection rate: test frequency, turnaround time or sensitivity.
The team created a mathematical model that forecasts the impact of different types of testing in three scenarios of a population of 10,000 people, 20,000 people and 8.4 million people.
Through this modeling, the researchers discovered that testing individuals in a large city twice a week is 22% more effective at reducing the infectiousness and more effective then tests that take up to 48 hours to return results.
“This paper is one of the first to show we should worry less about test sensitivity and, when it comes to public health, prioritize frequency and turnaround,” said senior coauthor Roy Parker, director of the BioFrontiers Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
In a different scenario, researchers found that if 75% of the population is administered a rapid test every three days, the infection rate decreased by 88%, and could ultimately drive the pandemic towards extinction in six weeks, according to the news release.
Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the stigma around rapid testing needs to change and could turn the tide against COVID-19
"These rapid tests are contagiousness tests," he said. "They are extremely effective in detecting COVID-19 when people are contagious."
The rapid tests can cost as little as $1 each and return results in 15 minutes, the report said.
Mina's hope is that the United States follows the footsteps of several other countries who have begun administering tests to all citizens.
"Within a few weeks we could see this outbreak going from huge number of cases to very manageable levels," Mina said.
Despite past public stigma surrounding rapid tests because of concerns that the tests missed early infection cases, Larremore says it's time to change those beliefs.
“It’s time to shift the mentality around testing from thinking of a COVID test as something you get when you think you are sick to thinking of it as a vital tool to break transmission chains and keep the economy open,” Larremore said.