While most Americans have their eyes focused squarely on the results of the Presidential election, there’s another number that we should be careful not to lose sight of: the skyrocketing number of new SARS-CoV-2 infections across the US. Over the past week, the country has seen record highs, with almost 100,000 new cases every single day. Those numbers are distressing enough, but the real number of new infections is likely much, much higher—far closer to a million newly infected each day than one hundred thousand. Most will never know they were infected, likely spreading the infection to family and friends as well as to strangers encountered while not wearing a mask.
A recent Lancet study suggests we are grossly undercounting the number of Americans with Covid-19. Researchers examined data from 28,000 patients who received dialysis in July and were tested monthly for a variety of markers, including for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The routine testing gave the researchers a regular, unbiased assessment of SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence in the random sampling of patients. What they found was that roughly ten percent of patients had antibodies to the virus, but only 9.2% of that group had been officially diagnosed.
This confirms something that I have long thought true: multiply whatever number of new Covid-19 infections in your community by ten, because this is likely the true number of new infections. That means, in the United States today, we don’t have 92,000 new infections, we have 920,000.
The finding highlights how important it is for each of us to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing—avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors, maintaining a distance from others, and wearing a mask. It also underlines the critical need to immediately implement a universal testing system using rapid antigen tests and developing a support system to allow those who test positive to isolate and avoid infecting others, without risking their jobs or livelihoods. Others have done this quite effectively, most notably in Asian countries like China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. But some European countries are now following suit.
Over the weekend, Slovakia administered rapid antigen tests to two-thirds of its population. Nationally, one percent of the population was found to be infected but in some regions the number was as high as four percent. Everyone testing positive was required to remain in strict isolation for ten days, either in their home or in a state supported facility. Another round of nationwide testing will take place in one week. The Slovakia testing rollout was not without its critics but the hope is that the inconvenience of long testing lines last week will help the country avoid the far greater inconvenience of a nationwide lockdown in the weeks to come.
Other European countries like Germany are now bulk buying rapid antigen tests as well, presumably in an effort to test more people, more frequently, to contain their outbreaks and avoid wider lockdowns. There is no reason why we in the United States don’t do the same.
I have already calculated the cost of a Covid containment strategy which includes widespread testing and supportive isolation, where families are offered financial support and medical resources throughout the course of any mandatory isolation period. The total cost, while in the tens of billions, would still be far less than the many trillions of dollars of national debt we continue to rack up alongside lost economic opportunities.
Whichever leader walks away with the Presidency of the United States for the next four years, would that he is willing to finally leverage the full power of the federal government to contain Covid-19 through widespread testing and isolation.