As the lines for COVID-19 vaccinations grow, health leaders hope people still waiting their turn don’t ignore that other line -- the one for a COVID test. They say screening for the virus is still a vital strategy to eventually ending the pandemic, especially as more concerning variants spread.
State health officials said in January that a more contagious strain of the coronavirus—the so-called UK variant—would become the main source of transmission in Tennessee by March. Although the variant was first detected in a Shelby County test sample last month, so far, it has not yet taken over.
“But, we are very concerned," said David Sweat, the deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department. "We’re seeing an increase in those U.K. strains. We’re seeing also a few from Brazil.”
He says early detection of these easily transmissible strains is one of the main reasons people still need to get tested if they feel sick, have been exposed to a positive case, or even just as a safety precaution.
“The first way we would know about [a change in viral strains] is if somebody got a test and then it got to the lab and could be sequenced,” Sweat said.
Genetic sequencing is how labs such as the University of Tennessee Health Science Center keep health officials apprised of how COVID is spreading through a community. That, in turn, can inform policy decisions such as tightening or easing restrictions.
While UTHSC has been screening about 100 random samples a week, Sweat says other local private labs are building their own capacity to help.
“We’re watching for these things so that we can respond pretty aggressively if we find them,” Sweat said.
Testing also gives contact tracers a head start to isolate positive individuals, preventing further spread.
The county can test about 17,000 people per week, not including testing conducted at hospitals and through employers. Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, who coordinates testing for the county’s COVID-19 task force, estimates that about 30-40 percent of that capacity is currently being used.
For a list of testing locations click here.