Graham Kilmer

Less Testing May Hide Rise In COVID-19

Rising rate of positive tests may show a post-Thanksgiving surge in pandemic, public officials warn.

By - Dec 9th, 2020 11:28 am
Wisconsin National Guard individuals man a COVID-19 testing facility. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Wisconsin National Guard individuals man a COVID-19 testing facility. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

With the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 declining in Milwaukee County, it appears that they peaked sometime just before Thanksgiving.

But public health officials are warning this could be a mirage, created by a decline in testing.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County, said two weeks ago the county was averaging more than 7,000 tests a day. Now, it’s averaging just over 4,400 tests a day. “A major decline,” he said.

Meanwhile there is a worrisome rise in the positivity rate — the percent of tests coming back positive. If the decline in cases was due to less cases of disease — and not simply a drop in testing —  then the positivity rate would not be rising.

“If we don’t test enough people, we will not find the cases that are out there,” Weston said. “And this is shown in the increase we’re seeing in the percent positivity.”

Just before thanksgiving, the seven-day average positivity rate was approximately 12%; now it’s surpassed 14 percent.

Testing is a key part of the public health response. It gives officials data on disease burden in the community, and lets people know if they have the virus and are potentially infecting others. “So with our decrease in testing, it makes sense that we would have a resulting decrease in cases.”

Weston explained during a media briefing Tuesday that he’s concerned this is the beginning of a post-Thanksgiving surge. It could be “the tip of a larger iceberg to come,” he said.

We’re about two weeks out from Thanksgiving day. Given the typical timeline of the disease, it would make sense that cases related to those gatherings would start to show up. But with testing down, that’s not reflected in the daily case numbers, but appears to be showing up in the positivity rate.

What the county needs, what health officials need, is for more people to go and get tested. If you’ve been exposed or are experiencing any symptom of illness at all — go get tested.

If you have a headache, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, shortness of breath, a cough — get tested. If you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea — get tested. If you are experiencing flu like symptoms, such as a fever or body aches — get tested.

“So even those with what seems like a minor cold need to get tested,” Weston said. “You can be just as infectious with minor cold symptoms.”

Mayor Tom Barrett said that the news surrounding the vaccine is exciting, and “there might be a natural tendency to let our guard down.” But rolling out the vaccine to everyone in the country is expected to take at least six months, he said.

“In the meantime, we need to focus on the fundamentals,” Weston said.

Wear a mask, physically distance and if you get exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, get tested.

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Categories: Health

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