How to Make COVID-19 Testing for Travel Far More Effective
These vital public health tools are finally being used by the United States, after almost 2 years worth of waiting for quick tests. There is no time better than now, as the Omicron quickly spreads in the U.S., and is more infectious and better able to break through the immune protection we’ve built up through vaccines and previous waves of the virus.
Omicron was officially announced almost as quickly as countries began to implement travel bans. However, it was too late. Already, the new version was appearing all over the globe. But, finally, we’re slowly learning. Instead of closing the U.S. border as in the past and allowing international travel to continue, President Joe Biden has announced new guidelines.
The administration deserves praise for taking more proactive public health steps to prevent people getting on flights with active infections. No matter what nationality or vaccination status, all international travellers to the U.S. must take a COVID-19 negative test within one day. This change is vital from earlier regulations that required a test to be completed within 72 hours after departure. This time limit was never met because of the possibility that a negative test taken more than 72 hours before departure could be used to determine if the person is positive or negative for COVID-19. However, a negative laboratory report can still be available.
We need to adjust our thinking about the approach to testing to ensure we’re using more effective tools.
It is important to use quick antigen tests for travelers who are visiting the U.S. because they provide instant results, as opposed to taking 1-3 business days to receive results from laboratory PCR testing.
Second, people shouldn’t just use any self-test at home or in their hotel by themselves. Instead, there will be a requirement for test authentication to verify the test-taker’s identity and test results. There are several ways to test authenticate. This could include a point-of care test at an office or pharmacy in the country where the traveler is located. Travel back to the U.S. may also be possible using a telehealth proctored testing kit. BeforeAccessible from all over the globe, the US is not required. Azova and eMed, where I’m the Chief Science Officer, are digital health platforms that verify who is taking the test. A certified proctor validates and verifies the results using a web-connected device. The certified digital results can then be sent directly to the person and the airline, if necessary.
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These companies in the U.S. allow home-tests that are quick and reliable to be used as crucial tools for this pandemic. The test results can then be reported directly to relevant health departments. This can also enable downstream options such sequencing variants, and can even enable rapid initiation of antiviral treatment (test to treat) without having to go to a laboratory or hospital. It is important to note that we now have anti-COVID-19 drugs which can be used within days.
What Type of Test is Important?
PCR testing is used to diagnose the U.S. pandemic. But, it’s not always better for spreading the virus in everyday life or for traveling. It can take up to 1-3 days for PCR results to be available. This allows for transmission while the results are being analyzed and for travelers, it misses the window. The sensitive PCR test can give positive results that can be visible for up to a month after the person has been declared non-infectious. This can lead to unnecessary quarantines and isolations, and may unnecessarily affect travel plans over long periods. A rapid antigen test gives people the ability to quickly isolate and take appropriate action, especially if they remain infected.
Important is the testing after you have entered.
Another important question to ask is “what if you’re negative when you get on the flight, but you become positive days after you land?” While some countries like China have a required substantial quarantine periods for travelers arriving from international destinations, that is not feasible in the U.S. The Biden Administration could recommend additional testing within the first week of arrival, in addition to pre-flight screening. The test could be administered to each traveler along with an e-health proctor for five days. Reports will then be provided. This could be made possible by providing five tests within minutes of arrival at the U.S. airport. As soon as an individual passes through passport control, they could be registered. A rapid test would show a positive result. If the test was not performed, an automatic message with a reminder would be generated reminding the individual to take the test again or to quarantine. Although the program needs to be adjusted to meet compliance requirements, these technologies can reduce the likelihood of new variants being introduced into the U.S.
How about the fully vaccinated?
There’s a lot of discussion about whether those who are fully vaccinated should have to take a test before travel. There’s a good reason everyone needs to test regardless of their vaccination status. This is because vaccines can be very effective in preventing disease and death but not as efficient at stopping the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, a few months post vaccination, the vaccine’s ability to stop the transmission of the virus is significantly reduced. It is important that those who have been vaccinated participate in other strategies to reduce spread.
Omicron is proving to spread more quickly than the other varieties among people vaccinated. It is more likely that Omicron is intrinsically more contagious and has unique combinations of mutations which make it more vulnerable to overcoming previously acquired immunity.
This is what we use to track, diagnose and test the virus. This is the cornerstone of pandemic management for medicine and public healthcare. Testing must be available, quick, affordable, effective and work quickly to determine who is at highest risk for spreading the virus. The combination of telehealth with at-home rapid test can make it possible to quickly diagnose and initiate antiviral medication in an efficient timeframe. A robust testing program will ensure that we can safely travel and open our borders. Omicron has quickly become a significant threat to our war against this virus. Although it is not the last variant of the virus, rapid testing can be used to help limit its spread and plan for the next.