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UW HEALTH: COVID-19 testing helps track variants, ‘breakthrough’ infections

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 3:33 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - While vaccines have been at the forefront when it comes to fighting COVID-19, health care professionals say we can’t forget about testing.

“It’s almost painful to go back to early on in the pandemic where we didn’t have enough testing,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer and Emergency Medicine Physician. “Testing was measured in days, not hours or minutes, we didn’t have enough.”

Dr. Pothof said that isn’t the case anymore as you can buy test kits at the store, request one online at the Department of Health Services (DHS) website or still go to testing sites. ThedaCare saying many of its testing sites now use rabid testing, where most results will be available within 15 minutes.

“It didn’t happen overnight but nowadays there are just so many different ways that you can get tested that likely works in with what might be a busy schedule,” said Dr. Pothof.

However, access doesn’t always mean action, as testing numbers seem to be leveling off throughout the state. Dr. Pothof said vaccines play a role in that, but there’s still community spread so testing should remain a priority for multiple reasons.

“Number one, if we know you have COVID-19 and you start to get more ill, we have therapies now available that we can use to help treat you to likely prevent you from getting more ill,” said Dr. Pothof.

He said monoclonal antibody therapies, like Regeneron, can be used early on in the infection.

“If we identify people with certain symptoms, in certain age group early, and we can get them that infusion, we know that it decreases the likelihood that they would have severe disease with their COVID-19,” said Pothof. Really this message is, there’s quite a bit that we can do if we know that you’re testing positive. That’s a different message than what we gave, you know, last spring or last summer when we didn’t have things available. So that’s why if you’re having these symptoms, it makes sense to get tested because there may be something we can do that improves your chance of getting away from COVID without real severe symptoms.”

Dr. Pothof said testing is also our only way of tracking community spread and COVId-19 variants, especially if it beats your vaccine immunity.

“One of the things to keep in mind is if we do find someone who has a variant that’s new, that defeated their immunity, that might be the first case of a variant for which we may need to develop a booster shot against,” said Dr. Pothof.

If you are fully vaccinated and are exposed to COVID-19, Dr. Pothof said you don’t need to be tested unless you start showing symptoms. Remember, the vaccines offer up to 95 percent immunity, meaning there will be breakthrough infections.

“It’s rare, but it happens. We’d want those people who get tested so we can learn what happened in that situation,” said Dr. Pothof.

While vaccines have become the main focus, Dr. Pothof said we can’t forget about the necessity of testing.

“It was important before but maybe even a little bit more important now because there are things that we do differently based on that test result. We still want to decrease transmission in our communities, even though it’s lower than it was historically,” said Dr. Pothof.

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