While the omicron-fueled surge of the COVID pandemic is showing early signs of slowing down on the East Coast, new cases and the demand for COVID tests continue to reach record levels in the Kansas City area.
During the first three weeks of this year in the metropolitan area, nearly 77,000 people tested positive, more than 3,200 people were admitted to the hospital for confirmed or suspected COVID cases and 257 more people died from the virus.
In response to the record-breaking surge, The Beacon brought back its COVID Help Desk to respond to reader questions about COVID in the Kansas City area.
In this edition, we’re focusing on tests: when to use them, how to find them and everything we know and don’t know about how omicron is changing the way we COVID test.
Let’s dive in.
How effective are at-home COVID tests at detecting the omicron variant?
One question came from Bill Sundahl, who asked whether at-home tests are as effective at detecting the omicron variant as they were with earlier strains.
“Are you swabbing it right? Should you swab your cheek and not your nose?” Sundahl said. “There’s so much noise out there.”
When it comes to deciphering the effects of the omicron variant on existing tests, there is good news and bad news.
The bad news is that two months after omicron was first labeled as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, there is still no clear consensus on how effective at-home antigen tests are at finding omicron cases compared to earlier variants.
Some preliminary data suggests at-home tests may be less likely to detect positive omicron cases. In late December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that a study found “antigen tests do detect the omicron variant but may have reduced sensitivity.” The findings echo a handful of other small-scale reports, which have not yet been peer-reviewed.
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However, a larger study (which also hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet) found the BinaxNOW brand COVID tests were as sensitive to detecting the omicron variant as to previous iterations of the virus.
The good news is despite the inconclusive results, many public health experts remain confident that frequent use of at-home tests during different stages of the illness will catch most COVID cases, regardless of the variant.
Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently told The New York Times that repeatedly taking antigen tests will help increase your chances of finding positive results.
“Tests are a moment in time,” Gronvall said. “You don’t know the day or the hour that the virus breached your immune defenses and took up residence.”
Throat or nose?
Although nose swabs have been the hallmark of COVID testing up until this point in the pandemic, early data suggests particles from the omicron variant may appear in the throat earlier than in the nose. Some medical experts have argued throat swabs may therefore be more accurate for early detection.
So does that mean you should swab your throat instead?
According to the FDA, the answer is a firm no – at least for now. Because the current tests on the market were designed to test nose swabs, inaccurate sampling procedures could lead to false positives, according to public health officials.
During a Senate committee hearing earlier this month, FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said the agency is researching throat swabbing. But for now, everyone should continue to use at-home tests as directed in each kit’s instructions.
“People should not use swabs that are designed as nasal swabs and try to swab their throat,” Woodcock said during the Senate hearing. “They may stab themselves.”
Where is Kansas City covid testing available?
While supply shortages are still leaving many local pharmacy store shelves bare, the Biden administration is moving forward with plans to offer free at-home tests.
The federal government’s website went online Jan. 18, allowing households to order four rapid COVID tests each. The tests are free and are expected to ship within 7-12 days, according to the website.
Kansas City area residents can also visit testing facilities to receive a PCR test, long known as the gold standard of COVID testing. PCRs are designed to be much more sensitive than at-home antigen tests but record demand for testing has led to many reports of long waits for appointments and drive-thru testing in the area.
Local residents may find some luck by checking a bot Twitter account set up by Kansas City, Missouri, resident Peter Carnesciali to find COVID testing appointments. Carnesciali originally developed the bot to help area residents find vaccination appointments, but he recently retooled the service amid the omicron surge, according to KCUR.
“It’s been really great to see all the appreciation from people saying that they were looking for something like this and that they’re glad to be able to find it when they needed it,” Carnesciali told the radio station.
The city of Kansas City also keeps a running list of where residents can find COVID-19 tests on its website.
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