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Free Covid tests may help combat winter surge in the US

The Biden administration has announced that starting next week, every US household can request up to four free at-home Covid tests. 

This initiative is an effort to prevent a potential winter surge in Covid cases, especially with the emergence of the Eris and BA.2.86 variants.

The $600 million program was initiated in early 2022, a period when retailers experienced a shortage of tests. 

When the Covid public health emergency was declared over in May, the program to distribute Covid tests was suspended.

Free tests

To date, over 755 million free Covid tests have been distributed across the US by the Biden administration. 

These tests, as clarified by the Health and Human Services (HHS), are intended for use throughout the remainder of the year. Detailed instructions regarding the checking of expiration dates will be included.

Recent surge

In recent months, there have been a surge in Covid infections and hospitalizations. Across hospitals in the United States, the data shows 20,538 Covid admissions in the week leading up to September 9. 

This figure indicates a 7.7% week-on-week rise in hospital admissions – representing the slowest increase since early July, a time when hospitalizations were at an all-time low. 

Covid deaths

In addition, Covid-related deaths are beginning to plateau, with 844 recorded in the week leading up to August 19.

Despite the introduction of updated vaccines and the current wave being relatively mild, disruptions could continue, possibly due to reasons such as staff absences. 

Wastewater monitoring 

Dr. Amy Kirby, who leads the CDC’s wastewater monitoring program, emphasized the uncertainty, stating it’s “really too early to tell” if a significant winter surge would materialize.

Wastewater monitoring has emerged as a crucial indicator of the virus’s prevalence. The CDC’s recent surveillance of Covid wastewater indicates declines in mid-Atlantic states like Virginia and Maryland. 

However, the Midwest and Northeast show a consistent increase in Covid traces, especially with school reopenings.

Marlene Wolfe, program director for WastewaterSCAN, mentioned that their findings point towards a “flattening out” of Covid spread. WastewaterSCAN currently tracks 183 sites across 36 states. 

Study implications 

Bill Hanage of Harvard University also emphasized the importance of wastewater surveillance, especially now that public health officials are not actively tracking individual Covid cases. 

The wastewater monitoring method, likened to weather forecasts, provides an indication of the virus’s spread even before individuals show symptoms.

As the nation faces the possibility of another Covid surge in the winter, the Biden administration’s free testing initiative and wastewater surveillance remain crucial tools. 

While current data may be encouraging, experts like Dr. Kirby warn that it is essential for the public to remain vigilant and proactive, especially with the unpredictability of the virus.

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