The United States is probably testing about 400,000 to 500,000 people per day for the virus that causes COVID-19, and it probably needs to increase that number to 1 million to 5 million per day to get the outbreak fully under control.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, delivered that message Wednesday to attendees at the America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) annual meeting, AHIP Institute.
The kinds of commercial health insurance plans AHIP represents are responsible for paying for COVID-19 testing, or getting an employer or the government to pay for testing, for about 268 million U.S. residents, according to data from Mark Farrah Associates.
Up till recently, Jha said, even people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms have been told to skip testing, because of a lack of testing resources.
Now, U.S. testing capacity has increased dramatically, but, even today, because of the testing shortage history, “we are largely testing people for symptoms,” Jha said. “One of the major problems with this virus is that there is a good amount of asymptomatic spread…. People without symptoms can spread the virus.”
Because somehow without symptoms can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to large numbers of other people, the country needs to be testing large samples of all kinds of people, to detect symptom-free “super spreaders” before those people make many other people sick, Jha said.
About 100,000 people enter U.S. hospitals every day, and hospitals should be testing all of them, to keep symptom-free or low-symptom super spreaders from making doctors, nurses and other patients sick in the hospital, Jha said.
The United States should also do aggressive testing of nursing home workers and residents, workers in many kinds of workplaces, and people who’ve come into contact with patients who have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, Jha said.
Jha said one key question is why the United States is not already testing 5 million people per day.
“In my mind, the single biggest reason is that we have not made this a priority for the federal government,” Jha said. “We’re not going to get the level of testing we need by having all 50 states competing with each other. We really need a coordinated national effort.”
Preexisting National Conditions
Dr. Patrice Harris, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association, said COVID-19 has brought into stark relief many “preexisting conditions of this country.”
“The first was a woefully underfunded mental health system,” Harris said. “This system has been so underresourced for decades.”
COVID-19 has also highlighted health inequalities in the United States, Harris said.
One reason for social distancing-related social isolation is that many Americans lack access to broad band internet services, Harris said.
Another concern, Harris said, is that some jurisdictions provided much better telephone access to mental health professionals than others did. The country needs to make sure everyone, in every jurisdiction, has comparable levels of access to crisis support, Harris said.
The meeting panelists spoke, via an online videoconferencing system, to attendees who were originally supposed to convening in Miami Beach, Florida.
In the past, AHIP annual meetings have attracted thousands of attendees.
The attendee list for the online meeting appeared to show about 900 attendees.
AHIP member companies have been rushing to try provide rich COVID-19 testing and treatment benefits, often far in excess of what plan terms provided, and then facing bitter criticism when errors or gaps in emergency coverage have led to some patients getting large bills.