As COVID-19 testing rates fall and new viral variants emerge across California, researchers may be blindsided in their ability to address the variants without test data.
In Berkeley, the average number of daily COVID-19 tests has dropped to about 1,000 this month compared to the nearly 2,000 tests done in January 2021, according to Berkeley’s test statistics. The most prominent variants in California currently are the West Coast strains, B.1.427 and B.1.429, and the United Kingdom strain B.1.1.7, said John Swartzberg, UC Berkeley School of Public Health clinical professor emeritus.
“If you don’t test, you’re blind,” Swartzberg said. “You have no idea what’s happening. You don’t know where the problem is, and if you don’t know where the problem is, you don’t know how to address the problem.”
Swartzberg estimated the West Coast strains to be about 20% more transmissible than the dominant strain and the U.K. strain to be about 50%. Transmissibility also depends on factors besides the virus such as community compliance around social distancing rules, campus infectious disease professor Lee Riley added.
While there is no clear information on their virulence or how sick someone becomes if they contract it, Swartzberg said the variants seen in the Berkeley area are “not of tremendous concern” because the vaccine provides strong immunity against them.
Swartzberg and Riley agreed that Berkeley, having some of the lowest infection rates in Alameda County, has done well in its response to the virus.
“Anything is possible, but with the expanded vaccination rollout, we’re gonna see less chances of any surges occurring in the near future,” Riley said. “As long as we’re able to maintain and adhere to the public health measures that have been implemented, I don’t expect Berkeley to undergo any sort of major reversal in the trend we are seeing now.”
While there is no clear explanation for why testing rates for COVID-19 have decreased across the country, Riley suggests that it may partly be due to a sense of complacency: With decreasing COVID-19 cases and deaths in many parts of the country, people may not feel testing is as necessary. Additionally, strong governmental emphasis on vaccination may have led to less emphasis on COVID-19 testing, Swartzberg added.
Swartzberg emphasizes the need for continued regular testing for researchers to have a clear picture of the situation and detect possible new variants resistant to vaccines. People should also continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines around social distancing, hand-washing and vaccinations to protect themselves, according to Riley.
“We need to understand why people may be hesitant to get the vaccine and convince them that it is important,” Riley said. “We just need to make sure that people understand the importance of the vaccine.”