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COVID tracker: Testing takes on a renewed importance

  • NH DHHS—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 12/14/2021 1:23:09 PM
Modified: 12/14/2021 1:22:34 PM

One of the reasons many people are having trouble coping with this winter COVID-19 surge – which is more like a tsunami than a surge – is the “been there, done that” syndrome.

Figuring when to wear masks, worrying about crowds, trying to schedule shots; we’ve gone through all that. Can’t we move on?

Unfortunately not, as the horrendous numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in New Hampshire demonstrate.

Personally, the pandemic habit I’m most reluctant to repeat is testing. Remember pre-vaccine days, when we didn’t know how far or fast COVID-19 was spreading? We eagerly lined up to have National Guard medics shove swabs up our nostrils – ugh.

I assumed we’d be done with that once vaccines and boosters arrived but I am very wrong. With the Delta and Omicron variants scrambling our plans, frequent testing remains an important part of keeping yourself, your friends and family, and your community from succumbing to this pernicious virus.

As a reminder (I needed it!), some testing details:

PCR tests, which look for genetic material that is associated with the actual virus, are the gold standard but results must be read in a lab and will take a few days.

Most hospitals, many urgent care centers and a number of clinics and pharmacies offer PCR tests, at least in theory. With everybody swamped by cases right now and a shortage of tests available as well as staff to administer them, you shouldn’t count on getting a test quickly or easily; plan ahead.

New Hampshire has set up four new walk-in sites for PCR tests, the closest in Claremont and Plymouth. For details, check https://www.covid19.nh.gov.

At-home PCR tests exist, some using spit instead of nasal swabs, but they’re expensive and not as reliable as in-clinic testing. Some require mailing off a sample and waiting days for results.

Antigen tests, which look for immune-system response to infection, are much less accurate but results can be read in a few minutes. These are the at-home tests you’re probably familiar with.

The problem with antigen tests is that the immune system response to an infection takes time. You might have SARS-CoV2 virus in your body but not have enough immune response to show up in the nasal mucus that you obtained on the end of that swab. (Once again – ugh.)

This is why antigen tests are prone to “false negative” results, indicating that you are not infected when you actually are. As a result, physicians say we should count on antigen tests only if we have symptoms, because symptoms show the immune system has responded enough to be detectable.

To summarize:

■Feel sick and don’t know if it’s the flu or COVID? Buy an antigen test at the pharmacy.

■Flying to see grandma for Christmas and want a test to ensure you aren’t infectious? Don’t count on an antigen test – plan ahead and get a PCR test.

And, of course, get fully vaccinated and boostered as soon as possible, wear a mask in crowds of strangers, and try not to despair.

For coronavirus-related information and updates throughout the week, visit concordmonitor.com/coronavirus.


What’s the trend on the spread and impact of the disease? As bad as it has ever been.

New Hampshire is seeing record numbers of people in the hospital with COVID-19, to the point that elective surgeries are being canceled, among other changes.

Sorry if you have to live with pain for another six months but there’s no room or staff to do the scheduled hip replacement – they’re mostly taking care of people who didn’t get vaccinated.

New cases are at a record level and deaths are rising sharply, although they’re still less than they were last January, presumably because vulnerable populations in nursing homes are well-vaccinated.

And the positive rate of PCR tests is over 12%, meaning more than one out of every eight of these semi-randomly applied tests are finding infection. That is way over the 5% positivity rate that indicates the virus is spreading out of control.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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