New Mexico has been invited by the White House to participate in a pilot program to improve and expand contact tracing for coronavirus infections. While details are sparse, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, this program may provide an opportunity to develop new high-tech tools to find people who have been in contact with someone who has the virus.
That’s all good, but I hope this program starts with a major increase in testing.
New Mexico has done better than most states in getting people tested, but what the results mean is ambiguous. A test result tells whether you’ve been infected at the moment you take the test. If the only people tested are those with symptoms, people with the virus but without symptoms will not be discovered.
News outlets have been reporting the total number of tests, the numbers of positives and negatives, because there are so few measurements available. Initially, those numbers were important, but they become less meaningful as time goes on. They do not tell us how many people are infected and undetected right now. It would be better if they could tell us the results of tests done this week.
We know a few things about this virus that are very unnerving.
One, you can have the virus for days before you feel sick. If you are careless, you can infect every person you come into contact with.
Two, if you get a very mild case, that doesn’t mean anyone you infect will also have a mild case. There is no information on that. You can have a mild case and infect someone who will die.
Three, it’s possible to have this virus, have no symptoms, and be unaware that you had it until you are tested for antibodies. Antibodies mean you had the virus and your body reacted by producing a defense.
Four, the experts don’t know whether antibodies will protect you from getting the virus again.
In Santa Clara County, California, a few weeks ago, county officials had confirmed 956 cases. Then they did widespread testing and discovered antibodies in an estimated 48,000 to 81,000 people. In another set of tests, women delivering babies at New York City hospitals were tested, and 33 out of 215, or 15%, tested positive. Only four of them showed symptoms.
To overcome this virus quickly and decisively, we would test everybody in the country on the same day, for both active virus and antibodies. Then everyone with the virus would go into isolation, and nobody new would get infected.
I thought of that a few days ago. So did the person in charge of testing on the White House task force. Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Public Health Service, said in a White House briefing that it can’t be done.
The alternative, he said, is increased testing plus contact tracing: when someone is found to have the virus, find the people that person may have infected, put all those people into quarantine, find out who’s been near them, and so on.
That method more or less guarantees that when one person gets the virus, more people will be infected before they are found and isolated. What could reduce this is lots more testing of people without symptoms, and very fast tracing.
Recently I wrote about a new method of testing for opioids that police officers could use in the field. Swap the person’s cheek, stick the swab into a small handheld gadget, and in five minutes you know what drugs are in that person’s system. What we need for coronavirus is something even simpler that we can administer ourselves, perhaps a test using a cheek swab that will turn one color if you have the virus and another color if you have antibodies.
I am hoping someone is working to invent that test right now. Meanwhile, if you can, please keep staying home.
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