Testing, testing. One. Two. Three.
For three years now, our daily lives have been tossed around like a juggler’s clubs by the obsession with counting positive COVID-19 tests.
Although a positive COVID test is not the same as an illness, not evidence of contagiousness, and not necessarily even accurate, Los Angeles residents have been living under the government’s threat to impose restrictions based on arbitrary numbers of positive COVID tests.
Last Thursday, L.A. County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer warned at her weekly press conference that an indoor-mask mandate could be reimposed this week due to “cases” rising. “Cases” is the term the county uses to describe COVID tests that return positive results. The department says the county had 185 “cases” per 100,000 residents last week, and if there are 200 “cases” per 100,000 residents this week, we will cross the imaginary threshold that, according to Ferrer, requires everyone in Los Angeles County to wear a mask — a useless cloth or paper mask meets the requirement — when indoors in a public place.
This irrational nonsense has real-world consequences. A mask mandate would mean the county could send its enforcement teams out to harass businesses and issue fines for lack of required signage or employee training. It might mean some employees will quit their jobs rather than be forced to argue with customers about face coverings.
The worst impacts will be felt by children in school, who have no choice except to comply, all day long. This is already the case for far too many children, given the county’s 10-day close-contact rule that requires healthy children to wear masks if they were in a class with another child who had a positive test.
Ferrer’s 10-day close-contact order applies to workplaces as well as schools, but because children can be pushed around by adults, the burden of the rule falls disproportionately, if not exclusively, on kids.
Barbara Ferrer’s education is in the field of social work, not medicine, and she has expressed frustration that the public is becoming less concerned about the threat of COVID and less compliant with her directives.
“There is this common line of thinking that the pandemic is over and COVID is no longer of concern, but these numbers clearly demonstrate that COVID is still with us,” Ferrer said last Thursday.
The fact that COVID is “still with us” doesn’t mean it’s still the same dangerous disease that it was in 2020, a point that has been made every week by Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer of LAC+USC Medical Center, during online townhall meetings with hospital employees. The number of positive tests may be higher, but the severity of COVID has lessened year by year.
Is it time to stop routine testing?
On Tuesday, Stanford’s Dr. Jake Scott, a board-certified infectious disease specialist and educator, posted this on Twitter: “Starting today, we’re only testing patients when there’s clinical suspicion based on signs and symptoms, as is the norm for all other infectious diseases, which should reduce barriers to care and provide us with more accurate hospitalization data. This is the right move.”
If L.A. County Public Health did that, Tuesday’s press release announcing “1,270 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19” might instead have reported whether anyone was in the hospital with COVID illness, rather than with an incidental positive COVID test.
The accuracy of data around COVID is crucial yet largely ignored, especially in Los Angeles County where public health press releases throw numbers around without any effort to be precise about their meaning. For example, deaths are reported as “due to” COVID even though the county has acknowledged that “due to” does not mean “caused by.”
On Tuesday, for example, L.A. County Public Health released the “latest data on COVID-19,” including “10 new deaths due to COVID (34,251 deaths to date)” and “3,125 new COVID-19 cases (3,565,418 cases to date).” Also thrown in: “More than 12,748,000 individuals tested; 25% of people tested positive to date.”
What is this, a telethon?
It’s time to stop the scare tactics and the scare testing. We should be focused on preventing harm, not on preventing calm.
Write [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley