‘We have to try something different’: Experts call for a large-scale rethinking of the U.S. testing strategy.
While most coronavirus tests to date have relied on an ultra-accurate procedure called PCR, severe supply shortages have slowed the turnaround of results, stretching to more than a week — or three — in some parts of the United States. That has complicated, if not crippled, efforts to detect and track the spread of the virus.
The best chance to rein in the sprawling outbreaks, experts said, requires widespread adoption of less accurate tests, as long as they are administered quickly and often enough.
“Even if you miss somebody on Day 1,” said Omai Garner, director of clinical microbiology in the U.C.L.A. Health System. “If you test them repeatedly, the argument is, you’ll catch them the next time around.”
This quantity-over-quality strategy has its downsides, and is contingent on an enormous supply of testing kits. Currently, only a handful of speedy tests have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. But many experts now believe more rapid, frequent testing would be enough to identify those who need immediate medical care — and perhaps even pinpoint those at greatest risk of spreading the disease.
One such option includes antigen testing, which, at its simplest, could provide a fast answer in the same way as pregnancy tests. Users could swab their mouths or noses or spit into a tube, then read the results as colored bars on a strip of paper within minutes. These tests could be done at a doctor’s office, or even at home — no fancy machines or specially trained personnel required — and cost just a few dollars each, perhaps even less. And there would be no delays of a week or longer.
The approach is unconventional for lab researchers, who have traditionally valued accuracy above all else. But given the status quo, “Our backs are against the wall, and it’s Hail Mary time,” said Susan Butler-Wu, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Southern California. “We have to try something different.”
France and Germany have each recorded a higher number of daily new coronavirus cases this week than either country has seen in months. France reported 1,695 new cases on Wednesday, and Germany on Thursday reported more than 1,000.
Germany’s public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute, said new cases were spread across the country, and were not concentrated in one region as more recent spikes have been.
In France, which had been seeing a slow resurgence of the pandemic, the 1,242 daily average of cases since the beginning of August has almost reached the level of infections in the first week of May, when the country was still under lockdown. And the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care units, which had been steadily falling since early April, has risen very slightly in recent days.
As numbers began rising last week in Germany, Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, had warned that Germans were becoming too lax and failing to uphold the social-distancing and mask-wearing requirements that remain in place.
In France, the scientific council that advises President Emmanuel Macron warned that a second wave of infections by the fall was “highly possible” given current trends. The council called on large cities — which are likely to be the first to turn into dangerous clusters — to prepare home-confinement strategies that could be tightened or loosened in step with the evolution of the pandemic.
With Congress and the White House still bargaining over a coronavirus relief package that would extend supplemental unemployment benefits, layoffs continue to pile up.
Wall Street analysts expect that a Labor Department report on Thursday will show that the number of new state jobless claims filed from July 26 to Aug. 1 will hover around 1.4 million for the third week.
The weekly count is down from the stratospheric levels reached in the early days of the pandemic. But the data is likely to show the 20th straight week of more than one million new state jobless claims, an extraordinary figure by historical standards.
Hundreds of thousands of additional claims are being filed weekly through a separate federal emergency jobless benefit program that covers freelancers and the self-employed.
Unless and until Congress acts, the unemployed will no longer receive the $600-a-week federal supplement that helped pay bills through the spring and early summer.
“With these benefits expiring, you have another hit to income and spending,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “So basically, everything’s pointing to a slower pace of recovery right now unless we can get the virus under control or there is a vaccine or something.”
“I think we’re going to see the pace of layoffs pick up in the coming weeks,” she added.
Eric M. Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, said on Wednesday that the city could cut off power to homes or business that host large gatherings in defiance of public health guidelines.
Large gatherings in private homes are banned under Los Angeles County’s public health orders because of the pandemic, but there have been a number of reports of parties in recent weeks. One party that drew a large group to a mansion on Mulholland Drive on Monday night devolved into chaos and gunfire after midnight, leaving five people wounded, one of whom later died, the authorities said.
“These large parties are unsafe and can cost Angelenos their lives,” Mr. Garcetti said at a news conference on Wednesday. “That is why, tonight, I am authorizing the city to shut off Los Angeles Department of Water and Power service in the egregious cases in which houses, businesses and other venues are hosting unpermitted large gatherings.”
He said that beginning on Friday night, “if the L.A.P.D. responds and verifies that a large gathering is occurring at a property, and we see these properties reoffending time and time again, they will provide notice and initiate the process to request that D.W.P. shut off service within the next 48 hours.”
He added that this would not apply to small home gatherings, though he urged residents to avoid those, too.
“Some research has shown that 10 percent of people cause 80 percent of the spread,” Mr. Garcetti said. “These super-spreader events and super-spreader people have a disproportionate impact on the lives that we are losing, and we cannot let that happen like we saw on Mullholland Drive on Monday night.”
A surge in coronavirus cases since mid-June in California has prompted officials to reconsider their moves to loosen some restrictions. California surpassed New York last month as the state with the highest number of coronavirus cases.
For some Britons, a return to a disrupted career may not be possible.
As a national lockdown was imposed in England in March, a food deliverer, Hanna Scaife, watched her weekly hours dwindle to nothing as restaurants across Teesside, in the northeastern part of the country, shut their doors. Business has not gotten much better since then.
Rather than wait for business to pick up, Ms. Scaife, 24, is giving up the delivery job and moving in an entirely different direction: She has enrolled in an art school beginning in September, with plans to transfer to the University of Sunderland to study ceramics and glass.
In Britain, the economic collapse caused by the virus has put millions of economic futures in doubt. More than nine million people have been furloughed, or 29 percent of the country’s work force, and 2.8 million have filed unemployment claims. Some fields, such as hospitality or live entertainment, seem especially uncertain, leaving some people in a quandary: Wait for business and employment to pick up, or leave behind a job and career and try something new?
Nicola Block, 35, has held jobs in the theater industry for a decade, but the future of live theater is under a huge cloud. Even when it is allowed to resume, it is uncertain how many people will be willing to risk attending a performance in a crowded venue. She is less eager for a career change, but in September, she will begin a 12-month contract as a teaching assistant at a primary school.
“I’m really torn,” Ms. Block said. “It’s something that I’m interested in and something that I want to do, so that’s great, but on the other hand I kind of feel like I’m abandoning something.”
Test results for North Korea’s first suspected coronavirus case were “inconclusive,” a World Health Organization official has said, after the case triggered quarantine orders for more than 3,600 people.
North Korea’s state-run news media has said the patient is a man who defected to South Korea three years ago but secretly crossed back to the border city of Kaesong last month. North Korea later declared a “maximum” national emergency and put Kaesong on lockdown.
North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries, has repeatedly said that it has no cases of the virus, but outside experts are skeptical. The local news media said last week that the national caseload was still zero, without providing further details on what happened to the man.
Dr. Edwin Salvador, a W.H.O. representative to North Korea, said in a statement on Thursday that the test results for the man remained “inconclusive.” Extensive contact tracing is underway, he added, with 64 of the man’s first contacts and 3,571 secondary ones under quarantine in government facilities for 40 days.
Dr. Salvador said in a separate statement that hundreds of workers at a North Korean seaport and at the border with the Chinese city of Dandong who came into contact with imported goods have also been quarantined.
North Korea’s authoritarian government has adopted drastic measures against the virus, including sealing its borders in January and closing off business with China, which accounts for 90 percent of its external trade.
A coronavirus outbreak could further damage the North’s economy, which is already hobbled by international sanctions, and strain its woefully underequipped public health system. Dr. Salvador said the government had designated 15 laboratories for Covid-19 testing, and that all schools were on an extended summer break.
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Reporting was contributed by Geneva Abdul, Luke Broadwater, Emily Cochrane, Patricia Cohen, Melissa Eddy, Jacey Fortin, Constant Méheut, Jim Tankersley, Katherine J. Wu and Elaine Yu.