Covering rapid testing and resources

Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr.

Rapid COVID-19 testing, how to get them and how to use are among the biggest pandemic stories. In the coming weeks, Americans will have more access to rapid tests than ever before now that the Biden administration has rolled out its plan to send one billion tests through the mail in response to the omicron surge.

Yesterday, Americans were able to start visiting  COVIDtests.gov to order up to four free rapid tests per household that will be delivered by mail in seven to 12 days, according to this White House fact sheet. This move comes in conjunction with a plan to send 10 million rapid tests to schools and a new requirement enacted over the weekend requiring private health insurers to reimburse plan holders for buying as many as eight rapid tests a month.

“Public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that Americans use at-home tests if they begin to have symptoms, at least five days after coming in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 or are gathering indoors with a group of people who are at risk of severe disease or unvaccinated,” the White House said in an announcement about the new website on Jan. 14.

Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina has a good explainer on how to use rapid tests that you can use in your reporting. 

COVID-19 testing in the U.S. has been challenging for  myriad of reasons including lack of laboratory infrastructure, supply chain gaps, regulatory obstacles, lack of test production capacity and federal leadership attention. Public health experts say that for much of the pandemic, testing in the U.S. has been more about documenting cases than anticipating and altering the course of the pandemic. 

To learn more about the above, read this CNN story and this Washington Post story. They are both balanced, detailed articles explaining why there wasn’t enough supply of COVID-19 tests during this past holiday season. They conclude that the administration has prioritized getting the public fully vaccinated, and the size and capacity of the COVID-19 testing supply wasn’t as high a priority. As of early 2022, there were about a dozen rapid tests approved by the FDA. Manufacturers are pledging to ramp up their supply, and the government has signed contracts to ensure that test makers keep producing tests, even when demand wanes. 

And demand may wane as quickly as it rose, as there is early evidence the omicron wave is peaking and may be declining in some parts of the country. Testing, however, is still going to be a crucial part of ending the pandemic.

With so many questions about COVID-19 tests, I created a comprehensive tip sheet with numerous resources and experts to call for your reporting. The new tip sheet covers the type of testing available, an explanation of rapid tests, who should be tested, when and why, how to use them, whether they work and their cost.

Poynter’s Al Thompkins offers the following tips for covering COVID-19 testing:

  • Journalists have to stay alert to scams. Some people will try to hoard tests and offer them fraudulently. 
  • Spend some time explaining how to make the best use of these kits, when to use them and how to correctly apply the swabs. 
  • Explain why some experts say it may be useful to swab the throat and not just the nose.
  • Explain that one negative test may not be enough since people may not show up as positive if they are infected but take the test too early. Experts say people who are symptomatic should test “right away.”

And if you have an hour to listen to a podcast, check out this Jan. 10 AHCJ webinar, “Omicron & Testing: Your Top 20 Questions Answered,” an excellent resource for understanding testing.

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