Testing provides best measure of viral reach

The Trump administration is facing criticism from health and government officials after it suggested fewer people need to be tested for novel coronavirus exposure. With good reason: evidence seems overwhelming that more testing, not less, is the best way to beat this pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, including almost 2,000 in the Rio Grande Valley.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week issued updated guidelines for COVID-19 testing, saying it isn’t necessary for people who have been in close contact with people who have been infected. The update was posted Aug. 24.

Previously, the agency had recommended to test anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. The change suggests that people who have had such contact but feel no symptoms don’t need to be tested.

However, the change was met with widespread concern from health professionals, who insist that we need more testing. The pandemic response team with the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, has set a goal of testing 4 million Americans every day by the fall.

That strategy seems to make more sense. The best way to address a problem — any problem — is to properly identify its source and its scope. Thorough testing helps assure that officials have the information they need to assess the pandemic and its status.

For example, people everywhere are expressing relief and hope at recent data that show the number of new cases, and deaths, is falling every day. Without sufficient testing, however, it can’t be known for sure if those numbers mean the pandemic is ebbing, or that many new cases aren’t being detected.

That might have been the case in late spring, when a decline in numbers inspired some officials, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to decide it was safe to begin reopening businesses that had been ordered closed. A new, perhaps even worse, rise in cases followed, and some analysts suggested insufficient testing might have contributed to the lower numbers and given false hope.

Moreover, the new CDC guidelines don’t address the fact that many people have carried COVID-19 before showing any symptoms, and some never show any signs of infection. The CDC itself has estimated that up to 40% or people who contract the virus never show symptoms. However, they are infected, and can pass the disease on to others.

Some people have suggested that the administration wants to reduce testing in order to reduce the number of reported cases in order to make the pandemic seem less of a problem. If that were the case, it seems more logical that officials should prefer more testing in order to make better decisions and bring the outbreak under control more quickly.

We agree with the healthcare officials who say that anyone who has come in contact with the virus, or has any doubts or suspicions, should be tested. At best, it can set their minds at ease, and any positive result can help initiate treatment sooner.

Hiding from the numbers won’t make the virus go away. Knowledge often is the strongest weapon in any arsenal, especially when dealing with a potentially deadly disease.