COVID-19 testing back in the spotlight as Omicron rages – CIDRAP

Almost 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the highly transmissible Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant has once again made testing—especially low-cost home tests—a critical issue for handling the pandemic.

Beginning on Jan 15, private insurance companies will be required to reimburse or pay for up to 8 tests per month for each person on a health insurance plan. And next week, the federal government has signaled it will distribute the first batches of 500 million free tests to Americans.

The half a billion COVID-19 tests will be available through a federal government website and shipped via the US mail.

The two actions, touted by the White House’s pandemic response team, are meant to help Americans who face a limited supply of home tests in light of the rapid spread of Omicron.

Yesterday the country reported 1.35 million new COVID-19 cases, according to a tally by Reuters. That’s a new global record daily number of cases, but it may be skewed, because some states report weekend case counts on Mondays.

Still, the 7-day average of new daily cases has tripled in the last 2 weeks, to 737,415, with 1,653 deaths, according to the New York Times tracker. And hospitalizations have also reached new records: The HHS Protect Data Hub shows 145,982 inpatient hospital beds in use for COVID-19 patients. This exceeds the previous high recorded in January last year, according to NPR.

Shortages force sick doctors, nurses to work

Across the country, hospitals are facing a deluge of patients with staff numbers cut by doctors and nurses who have contracted COVID-19. It’s a situation that’s forcing many hospital systems to ask asymptomatic or even symptomatic staff to return to work.

Hospitals say the new policy aligns with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that says Americans may return to work 5 days after a positive COVID-19 test, without an accompanying negative test.

In Delaware, a hospital system has invoked crisis standards of care after operating at 100% for the past several weeks. The spokesperson for ChristianaCare announced yesterday that 40% of all patients at Christiana Hospital, Wilmington Hospital, and Union Hospital are COVID-19 positive, and the CEO of the company asked community members to do everything in their power to limit the spread of the virus.

In related news, Delaware Gov. John Carney has ordered a universal indoor mask mandate which goes in effect today.

“Our hospital systems are facing a crisis-level situation with record numbers of Delawareans seeking emergency care. We need all Delawareans in the fight as we face this winter surge of COVID-19 to make sure our hospitals are not overrun,” said Carney.

Chicago teachers reach agreement

The Chicago Teachers Union last night voted to suspend its remote work action under a tentative COVID-19 safety agreement that will return students to classrooms as soon as tomorrow, WBEZ Chicago reports. The agreement ends a tense, week-long work stoppage that pitted union members against Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

And in Los Angeles, more than 65,000 public school students and staff have tested positive as the district returns to classrooms today, ABC News reports. The student positivity rate is 16.6% and the employee positivity rate stands at 14.9%.

Other US developments

  • The Red Cross has issued plea for blood donation, due to shortages linked to COVID issues.
  • The CDC is considering whether to upgrade its mask guidance to recommend that people opt for N95 or KN95 masks, if they can do so consistently, the Washington Post