Very good news in addition to the very good vaccination eligibility news:
Consumers will be able to buy rapid coronavirus tests without a prescription this week at three national chain retailers. https://t.co/Cz6AEASsWz
— USA TODAY Health (@USATODAYhealth) April 20, 2021
These tests are now available over the counter (OTC) without a prescription and can be performed by any adult. OTC tests promise a rapid and actionable result within fifteen minutes.
Rapid OTC testing is going to be part of the tool kit of getting back to normal-ish in conjunction with vaccinations, improved ventilation, masking and other public health measures. These tests are sensitive enough to pick up people when they are likely infectious to other folks and they are quick enough that a positive test can put someone into isolation for ten or more days and break any subsequent counterfactual chains of transmission before they can get started. These tests are good enough to find non-symptomatic spreaders. I could see a use case where a school district issues each kid a pair of tests per week and uses that to clear the school building with testing on Monday morning and Wednesday morning before the kids arrive.
There are downsides to these tests. The first is that they are not as specific as PCR tests. This is fine. The repeated (‘serial’) nature of the test works as a guard against a false positive. The second big challenge is that these tests are not cheap. A pair of tests goes at retail for $20 to $40. As a one-off expense, this is plausible for many families but as a weekly expense for multiple people in a household, it gets expensive real fast. We’re in a different world if there are rapid, good enough tests that cost $1 per use compared to the current world of $10-20 per use tests. At $1 per use, the school screening strategy I mentioned above is readily plausible for an entire academic year.
Right now, we have a lot of things that are coming together in testing, vaccination and better weather for outdoor activity that should continue to allow us to get the pandemic outbreaks under control. Now we just need to grind forward for a few more weeks and get case counts real low.