Why Testing Still Matters

With case numbers still high, coronavirus testing remains essential, experts say, but the goals and approach will change as vaccines roll out.

By Emily Anthes

Last May, the city of Los Angeles turned a fabled baseball park into a mass testing site for the coronavirus. At its peak, Dodger Stadium was testing 16,000 people a day for the virus, making it the biggest testing site in the world, said Dr. Clemens Hong, who oversees coronavirus testing in Los Angeles County.

But in January, the city pivoted, converting the stadium into an enormous, drive-through vaccination site. Local demand for coronavirus testing has plummeted, Dr. Hong said. He said that he saw the evidence firsthand recently when he visited a community hospital: “The testing site had three people and the vaccine site had a line around the block.”

Los Angeles is not an anomaly. Across the nation, attention has largely shifted from testing to vaccination. The United States is now conducting an average of 1.3 million coronavirus tests a day, down from a peak of 2 million a day in mid-January, according to data provided by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

In some ways, the decline is good news, and can be attributed, in part, to falling case numbers and the increasing pace of vaccination. But the drop-off also worries many public health experts, who note that the prevalence of Covid-19 remains stubbornly high. More than 50,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths are being tallied every day and just 14 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

“We are very much worried about resurgence,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Everybody mentally moved on to vaccines. Obviously, vaccines are quite important. But as long as the majority of us are not protected, then testing remains essential.”

The $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law this month includes $47.8 billion earmarked for testing, tracing and monitoring the virus.

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