What do coronavirus testing statistics mean?

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Getting tested for COVID-19 seems like a straightforward endeavor; and –in some respects— it is.

Getting tested for COVID-19 seems like a straightforward endeavor; and –in some respects— it is. But the implications of testing go far beyond the individual patient. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“Getting a test when you have symptoms is super important,” says Dr. Laura Brunner, head of pediatrics and NICU at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. “Because we do want to figure out: is it coronavirus or is it not?”

This represents the most straightforward reason tests are done: if a patient is sick, they can begin receiving treatment, whether that is with medication or with bed rest, depending on the case. The implications of testing, however, go beyond the individual patient.

“How long do you stay home? What do we do with the other people that live in your house? Can you go to work?” Brunner asks. She says that testing for symptomatic individuals is also important for contact tracing and notifying others.

“Everybody who gets the test gets instructions to stay home,” Brunner says. This reduces the exposure of the patient both to and from others. The patient is instructed to stay at home until they receive their results. Depending on the results, the patient may be required to stay at home until they are recovered.

Asymptomatic individuals, on the other hand, are tested if they are trying to undergo an unrelated medical procedure. “The point of that testing is to try and figure out the people that are asymptomatic and carrying the virus before they put our health care workers at high risk,” Brunner says. “If they’re already positive, we would want to think about ‘can we delay it?’ ‘can it wait?’ or what protection we need to have for health care workers.”

There is another purpose to testing: to gather information about trends. “If we don’t test anybody, then it looks like we have no cases,” Brunner says. “You want to be testing a lot of people across a broad range of symptoms and geographic areas, to try to get you some of that epidemiological information.”

“When you’re trying to answer the question of ‘is there virus in the community?’ you have to do enough tests to answer that question,” she continues.

However, there is a catch: a lack of positive tests does not mean that the virus is completely gone from the community – it is merely an indicator that the number of actual positive cases is lower than the expected number. When the number of actual positive cases in Fairbanks was determined to be lower than the expected number, healthcare leadership, as well as political leadership, were able to say that the curve had begun to flatten.

“Testing is one of the only tools that we have to try and inform our decisions and to try and keep our community and our healthcare workers safe,” Brunner says. “Is it perfect? No. Nothing is in all of this, but I think it is one of the best tools that we have, because the virus is still the same, we don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have disease specific treatment, and we don’t have immunity.”

“I think that the important thing is that we have to do enough tests to be able to answer the ‘is there virus in our community’ [question] so when we’re reporting a number, part of the reason we’re reporting that number is to say we’re doing enough to inform these decisions,” Brunner concludes.

Copyright 2020 KTVF. All rights reserved.