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Will COVID-19 Testing Take A Back Seat As Conn. Vaccinates More Residents?

Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Hartford resident Carlos Rodriguez self-administers a nasal swab at Community Health Center Inc.’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College on March 26, 2021.";

Alexander Amado started working with Community Health Center Inc. nearly a year ago. He took a job at the health center’s Hartford COVID-19 testing sites when they were newly constructed last spring.

It was a slow start, he said, but everything quickly escalated.

“People would come like four to six people in a car, and people would wait like three hours to get tested. It was pretty insane,” Amado said. “It was a little rough, but we got the rhythm going. And there were two lanes, because that was the volume of cars, and that would wrap around the building.”

But on a recent Friday afternoon, those kinds of lines were nowhere to be seen at a drive-thru testing location in the parking lot of the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford. In fact, when city resident Carlos Rodriguez pulled up, there was no wait at all.

“So right now I got tested because I work at the restaurant, I’m a little sick, but I know it’s a common cold,” he said through his car window, “but to basically make sure, I just wanted to get tested.”

Residents say testing still provides some peace of mind, especially while they wait to become fully vaccinated, or because they need to be cleared for work, school or travel. State officials continue to emphasize the importance of testing, especially as coronavirus variants circulate.

But in recent weeks, overall state testing numbers have dropped to around where they were last October, which leaves questions as to what role testing will play going forward.

Credit Tony Spinelli / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Community Health Center Inc. runs several COVID-19 testing sites, including this drive thru-site in the parking lot at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford.

“We’re going to need testing for some time to come. Until COVID really recedes into the rearview mirror completely. We still have large portions of the population that are not yet vaccinated,” said Josh Geballe, state chief operating officer.

“And even once we get another month or two into this, we may still have pockets around the state that have lower vaccination rates, and we’re going to need testing to ensure quick turnaround for them.”

As of early April, a rolling seven-day average showed about 30,000 COVID-19 tests performed each day in the state. But those numbers are down from daily averages in the fall and winter. 

Geballe said testing numbers have bounced around in recent weeks, sagging at times, but also increasing when cases spiked.

“I think you’ve seen a mix, to some degree, we have a lot of hospitals -- are kind of testing everybody that’s coming in or out of the hospital for a procedure. It’s maybe dropped off in some other areas. But the volumes, overall, still give us a very good pulse of the activity across the state.”

Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for Geballe’s office, said in an email that “we aren’t seeing large testing lines in pop up testing clinics during new outbreaks like we may have been in the fall.”

“We’re in a different place where we’re seeing more testing in medical settings out of an abundance of caution, and where those who have symptoms, medical risk, or are traveling are getting tested at the appropriate times,” said Anderson. “We do believe that our testing program remains strong.”

But Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said rank-and-file surveillance testing in the community remains key to controlling COVID-19.

“If we start seeing clusters of cases emerging in places where we wouldn’t expect them to, that gives us a lot of information,” Kissler said. “That tells us that we might want to look there for a variant of concern. And the more testing we’re doing, the more quickly we’ll be able to pick those sorts of things up.”

Credit Tony Spinelli / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
A vile from a swab test is shown at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College.

Variants have continued to spread across Connecticut in recent weeks as hospitalization rates have again begun to trend up.

Amesh Adalja, a physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said testing has been “the original sin” of the United States’ pandemic response, and he said it can’t be set aside even as more vaccines become available.

“Children under the age of 16 -- they’re not going to be eligible for a vaccine for some time,” Adalja said. “They’re going to be playing sports, they’re going to be doing activities, they’re going to be going to school. Testing of those individuals on a frequent basis can decrease the ability of this virus to disrupt activities.”

“If we could get, for example, cheap home tests where people could test themselves every day and know their status, I think we would come a long way to opening things back up safely,” Adalja said.

Geballe said he’s hopeful “we can get out of the testing business before too long,” but for now, the state will follow federal guidelines that recommend conducting robust testing in order to accurately track local outbreaks of the virus.

Health organizations across the state have been carrying out testing efforts, including Community Health Center Inc., which runs more than a dozen semi-permanent locations in addition to its mobile services. 

Credit Tony Spinelli / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
A child holds the hand of his parent as he self-administers a nasal swab test for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site at Trinity College.

The center has found new homes for some testing locations and has shifted some resources to make way for vaccination sites. But Jessica Herrera said there are no plans to scale back testing services.

“It’s a lot to sustain, but we’ve still found the need is still there in the communities we serve,” she said.

And as the weather warms, Herrera anticipates that the numbers will again start creeping up, even though they may not reach the massive volume and demand seen in previous months.

“But we’re ready for it, if it comes back.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.
Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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