COVID-19 testing: Key to getting back to normal

Control of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) heavily relies on universal access to testing.


The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe is an urgent national public health concern and requires coordinated efforts to scale up testing.

This important intervention is used to identify who is infected, tracking them to make sure they do not spread the disease further, and tracing those with whom they have been in contact.

As of January 27, Zimbabwe had recorded 32 304 positive cases of COVID-19 and 1 122 deaths.

On testing, during the same period, 293 916 polymerase chain reaction tests were conducted, with 111 010 rapid diagnostic tests and

27 911 antigen.

The government said mass testing of communities was one of its long-term plans.

Currently, there are several private laboratories that complement the government in testing for COVID-19.

The National Institute of Health (NIH).which is one of the world’s foremost medical research centres, in a statement last year said  every single person can help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From wearing a mask to washing your hands to maintaining physical distance and avoiding large indoor gatherings, each of us can follow proven public health practices that not only reduce our own chance of getting infected by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes coronavirus disease, or COVID-19), but also prevent the spread of COVID-19 to our coworkers, friends and loved ones. Another thing that will help is testing as many people as possible,” the statement read.

NIH explained further why widespread testing was necessary, important and achievable.

  1. Testing saves lives

Testing of all people for SARS-CoV-2, including those who have no symptoms, who show symptoms of infection such as trouble breathing, fever, sore throat or loss of the sense of smell and taste, and who may have been exposed to the virus will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by identifying people who are in need of care in a timely fashion. A positive test early in the course of the illness enables individuals to isolate themselves — reducing chances that they will infect others and allowing them to seek treatment earlier, likely reducing disease severity and the risk of long-term disability, or death.

Testing of people who have been in contact with others who have a documented infection is also important. A negative test doesn’t mean you are in the clear, you could become infectious later. Therefore, even if you test negative, you need to continue to protect yourself and others by washing your hands frequently, physically distancing, and wearing a face mask. A positive test makes it clear that you have to isolate yourself, and that others with whom you have been in contact since the time of your exposure should also get tested.

Since it is recognised that nearly half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections are transmitted by people who are not showing any symptoms, identifying infected individuals while they are presymptomatic, as well as those who are asymptomatic will play a major role in stopping the pandemic.

  1. Testing can be easy and quick

Initially, the only test available required getting a sample from the back of a person’s throat. New developments, some of which are supported by two other NIH projects, RADx Tech and RADx-ATP (Advanced Technology Platforms), provide more comfortable and equally accurate tests that obtain the sample from inside the nose.

A positive test for SARS-CoV-2 alerts an individual that they have the infection. Not only can they get treated faster, but they can take steps to minimise the spread of the virus.

This is why it is so important to get the test results quickly, ideally within a few hours or less.

When the pandemic started, there was not enough capacity and limited supplies to collect and process the tests, which resulted in delays. However, lab equipment has improved, capacity and supply have expanded, and results are being returned, on average, within three to four days. In fact, point-of-care tests will be available that provide a result in less than 15 minutes!

  1. Testing matters more in the communities affected the most

Poor, overcrowded and vulnerable communities are disproportionately burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some individuals in these communities are essential workers, who cannot work from home, increasing their risk of being exposed to the virus. In addition, multi-generational living situations or multi-family housing arrangements can allow the virus to spread more quickly if one household member gets infected.

Comorbid conditions that worsen the health risks of COVID-19, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, are also more common in minority communities because of long-standing societal and environmental factors and impediments to healthcare access.

Therefore, COVID-19 can spread quickly in these communities, and the impact of that spread is great. Testing, particularly of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals, is key to interrupting this spread.

There is still a lot of confusion about where to get a test and who should get tested. It is becoming clear that for a person to test positive, they have to have a significant amount of the virus in their system.

This means that if you have no symptoms, but think or were told that you were in contact with a person with COVID-19, you should isolate yourself immediately, call your healthcare provider, and then get a test. If you have any question, always call your healthcare provider or local public health office.

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