Testing will remain important even as Minnesotans get vaccinated

Finding asymptomatic carriers reduces spread. 

Joe Carlson - Star Tribune, February 28th, 2021

Each week, more than 500 people make their way to Weyerhaeuser Hall on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul, where they swab the insides of their lower nostrils under medical supervision to get tested for COVID-19.

The students and employees, selected semi-randomly by a computer to provide nasal samples for COVID testing, have no symptoms of the disease and no reason to suspect they're infected.

And that's the point.

When COVID-19 case counts fall, doctors and public health officials say the importance of finding and isolating asymptomatic carriers will re-emerge as a top priority for ending the pandemic. An analysis published last month in JAMA Network Open estimated more than half of all COVID-19 transmission originates in people who don't know they are infected.

Even in Minnesota, where residents can get COVID-tested for free, advocates of routine asymptomatic testing say it remains critical that schools and organizations can access cheap and quick ways to regularly test their students or employees.

"The prevalence of asymptomatic individuals is high enough that identifying them reduces the spread," said Macalester Vice Provost Paul Overvoorde, director of campus COVID operations. "Vaccines will certainly play a role, but they are still months from being able to curb the active epidemic."

Testing, along with social distancing, masking and other basic pandemic steps, will remain important for months to come, Minnesota Health Department officials say.

The soonest any vaccine will be available in the U.S. for kids ages 12 to 15 is late spring, and it will be even longer for those who are younger.

Scientists don't yet know if vaccinated people can still spread the virus.

"We have indicators that there will be some continued spread, even among people who are vaccinated, until enough people are vaccinated to shut down the disease," said Harvard professor Dr. Atul Gawande.

Gawande, known widely for writing about reforming health care, is co-founder and executive chairman of CIC Health, in Cambridge, Mass., which connects organizations that need testing — including Macalester — with laboratories that can process large volumes of tests quickly and cheaply.

Macalester's twice-weekly batches of test specimens from asymptomatic students and employees are processed by the University of Minnesota Genomics Center (UMGC), which set up a new lab in Oakdale in October.

The masked and gloved workers at the lab open the tubes on-site and create "pooled" vials containing samples from five individuals. Negative pool results are available that day, and positive pools come back the next morning. The tests are run on QuantStudio 5 PCR machines.

"If it's negative, all individual results are negative. If the pool is positive, we go back to retest those five individual samples immediately," said Kenny Beckman, director of the UMGC. Read the full Star Tribune article here.