States are starting to shutter mass COVID-19 testing sites due to a drop in demand and an uptick in at-home testing even as the U.S. warily eyes a version of the omicron variant that spreads quickly and has sparked a wave in Europe.
New Hampshire closed its state-run sites last week, South Carolina is closing its sites through March and Utah has been unwinding mass testing since February, according to a tally from the New York Times.
The trend results from sagging demand as national case counts plummet to below 30,000 per day following the winter omicron spike that resulted in more than 800,000 infections per day at its mid-January peak.
The downward slide in cases has plateaued in recent days, however, and scientists are wary of the BA.2 variant, a sub-form of omicron that spreads faster but is not believed to cause more severe disease. Federal scientists say they’re tracking the variant but don’t think they will call for more restrictions.
Still, the decision to wind down testing locales isn’t sitting well with persons who don’t want to see the type of long lines and scramble that dominated the winter holiday period during the last surge.
Some Massachusetts lawmakers told Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to reconsider his decision to close a large number of PCR testing sites by the end of the month.
“The Stop the Spread site has proven invaluable in the battle to identify community outbreaks and take steps to curb higher education transmission rates and prevent spread to the wider community,” lawmakers wrote in a recent letter to the state Department of Public Health.
The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that officials in Amherst and elsewhere are particularly worried about losing services on college campuses and would like them to continue until June 1.
“The discontinuation of this program comes at a critical time as the population is transitioning from mask mandates to navigating risk reduction,” the officials wrote. “At the end of this week approximately 30,000 students and other members of our community will be returning to Amherst from spring break. It is crucial to understand the direction of the disease in regards to case transmission, as well as new variants that may have different virulence or fitness.”
The BA.2 variant is fueling an uptick in COVID cases in the U.K. and other European nations, and the U.S. generally sees its own wave a few weeks after Europe gets hit.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention variant accounted for nearly a quarter, or 23%, of sequenced U.S. samples during the week ending March 12, up from about 14% the previous week and 7% the week before that, indicating it is slowly becoming more prominent.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday the new variant is 50% to 60% more transmissible than its predecessors.
“So it does have an increased transmission capability,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “However when you look at the cases they do not appear to be any more severe and they do not appear to evade immune responses — either from vaccines or prior infections.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this story.
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