Opinion: Testing’s still key in COVID-19 fight

Comprehensive testing continues to be a crucial tool in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and keeping our state’s economy and schools open during 2021.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Georgia and the rest of the nation were in full lockdown and vaccine distribution was still six months away. Today, more than 161 million Americans have been vaccinated and, in May, the Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 12 and up.

Vaccine development has brought us forward as a nation and given us a glimpse of what a return to normalcy looks like. However, herd immunity is still a lofty goal in our state, as Georgia’s overall vaccination rate is among the lowest in the nation with only 34 percent of Georgians fully vaccinated, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

As a result, comprehensive testing continues to be a crucial tool in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and keeping our state’s economy and schools open during 2021.

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Credit: Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Credit: Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Credit: Dr. Gulshan Harjee

Credit: Dr. Gulshan Harjee

At Clarkston Community Health Center, we saw firsthand the damage this virus can cause in our communities, particularly among vulnerable populations. We saw Clarkston become a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, and free COVID-19 testing was a critical part of our efforts to address the crisis. We’ve also seen how vaccine hesitancy has impacted vaccination rates, particularly in communities of color.

Social determinants of health disproportionately impact communities of color — a truth that has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial and ethnic disparities impact risk of exposure and access to care that result in disproportionately higher incidence of infection, complications and death.

We can’t afford to become complacent on testing and allow cases to rise. This is especially critical in these summer months as travel is rebounding and airline passenger numbers are increasing each day. Testing is essential for entry into most countries, including the Caribbean and the European Union.

Not only are Georgians traveling, but family reunions, concerts, cookouts, birthday parties and a return to daycare, church and even summer camp are now on the calendar. With that in mind, it’s important that testing and screening continue to be a part of our routines in order to keep everyone safe.

A key part of this effort is ensuring that people understand testing options that remain available and where to find a test.

Each of the three types of COVID-19 tests plays a different role in a robust testing program. Molecular tests, such as the well-known PCR tests, are considered the gold standard of COVID-19 tests. Rapid antigen tests provide a fast result when needed, such as prior to boarding a long flight, or when a PCR test is unavailable. Antibody tests are the choice for detecting previous COVID-19 infections.

A comprehensive regimen that includes PCR tests, rapid antigen tests, and antibody tests under the right circumstances provides the three S’s for navigating COVID: Screening, Surveillance and Success.

  • Screening is critical as the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads among asymptomatic carriers. Using rapid antigen tests ensures safer re-entry to schools, workplaces, public transportation, and indoor activities.
  • Surveillance happens through antigen tests, which help locate hot zones so public health officials can direct resources to help anticipate future outbreaks.
  • Success comes due to access to antigen tests and antibody tests, which allows residents and healthcare providers to make better informed healthcare decisions. When an asymptomatic patient has a positive COVID-19 antigen test, the patient can immediately quarantine while waiting for results of a confirming PCR test. A positive antibody test can inform future health decisions between a patient and their doctor.

While drive-thru testing sites may not be as abundant as during the winter months, tests are still readily available at local urgent care centers, pharmacies, primary care physician offices, health clinics and some local government offices, such as several areas in Fulton County (https://fultoncountyga.gov/covid-19/covid-testing-sites).

To build long-term solutions that improve public health, it is critical to raise awareness and provide education and comprehensive testing resources that allow Georgians to know their health status — not just during the pandemic, but beyond.

Gulshan Harjee, M.D. is founder of the Clarkston Community Health Center, an internist, a civil surgeon, immigrant and breast cancer survivor.