Managing and containing the coronavirus outbreak is all about knowing who has the virus and who does not. Healthcare providers need access to rapid testing in order to track the spread of the virus and quickly isolate people who have been infected. However, the U.S. is still suffering from a lack of COVID-19 tests, for which states across the country continue to compete.
A new study from the University of Southern California suggests that the virus may be more widespread than officials had once thought. Thousands of individuals may be what are known as silent carriers: asymptomatic patients who can spread the virus onto others without their knowledge. These individuals are unlikely to get tested if they remain relatively healthy.
Learn about the latest infection figures and how officials are working to track the spread of the virus in real-time.
Shocking Study Suggests Widespread Infection
Using a new antibody test, USC recently completed a study tracking the spread of the virus within the Los Angeles area. So far, the outbreak has killed around 1,200 people in California, with 13,816 confirmed cases out of 80,000 tested people tested, according to official reports.
Despite these figures, the study estimates that around 4.1% of the county’s adult population of over 8 million have antibodies to the virus in their systems, which means they must have been exposed at some point even if they have never shown symptoms. When adjusted for margin of error, the infection rate ranged from 2.8% to 5.6%, or about 220,000 to 440,000 adults in the Los Angeles area alone. That estimate is about 28 to 55 times higher than what officials have been reporting.
This tells us that the virus could be much more prevalent than once thought. Individuals across the country are being told to stay home unless they need urgent medical care, so many asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms are not being counted towards the total number of virus cases. These figures could also dramatically lower the official death toll of the virus.
Officials are urging the public to continue practicing social distancing. If some states release their shelter-in-place orders too soon, the virus could easily spread among those who have not yet been exposed.
The study is also being touted as a call to arms, as healthcare providers and state governors continue pressing the federal government for more coronavirus tests, which will be essential for reopening the country and preventing future outbreaks.
Lead investigator Neeraj Sood from USC spoke about the study: “We haven’t known the true extent of COVID-19 infections in our community because we have only tested people with symptoms, and the availability of tests has been limited. The estimates also suggest that we might have to recalibrate disease prediction models and rethink public health strategies.”
This study could fundamentally change our understanding of the virus, how it spreads, and how it will need to be contained.
But can this information be trusted?
The study was conducted by randomly testing L.A. county residents for antibodies related to the coronavirus. Based on these initial findings, scientists scaled up the data to account for the entire Los Angeles county.
It’s important to note that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed by other scientists, but researchers plan to test new groups of patients every few weeks and update their figures accordingly.
New Efforts to Track COVID-19
With limited testing capabilities, the scientific community is turning to other means to track the spread of the virus. Testing the entire U.S. population for the virus is unfeasible at the moment, especially with most of society locked up in their homes.
A new app known as How We Feel is designed to help individuals and healthcare providers track the spread of the virus within their local communities. Once they create a free account, users are asked to volunteer information about how they feel, including whether they have experienced any flu-like symptoms. This will help the medical community track the spread of the virus in lieu of official COVID-19 tests. While the app is by no means a replacement for testing, it can peel back the curtain when it comes to how many people have experienced or are living with symptoms.
Users are asked to update their information daily, so the records stay up to date. The company will even donate a free meal to those in need for every person that signs up.
The app was built by an independent, non-for-profit organization known as The How We Feel Project. The team is made up of volunteer scientists and doctors. They plan on sharing this information with other healthcare and academic organizations.
If you are struggling to figure out how many people in your area may have been infected with the virus, have your patients sign up for the How We Feel app or create a similar program in your area. You can also use the official COVID-19 Tracking tool from CNN to keep up with the latest infection rates.
Reach out to your patients to see how they are feeling, even if they are healthy, to get an idea of how prevalent the disease has become in your community.