Fewer Iowans are getting tested for COVID-19, and that’s making public health officials nervous.
“Anytime you don’t know your status, you could certainly be spreading the virus unknowingly,” said Liz Highland, an advanced registered nurse practitioner at the clinic that manages the bulk of the University of Iowa’s COVID-19 testing. “That’s the biggest risk — that people who have COVID are still out in the public and spreading it.”
Over the last month, Dec. 21 through Wednesday, the median number of people tested each day in Iowa was 4,148, down 26 percent from the previous month’s daily median of 5,638 people tested, according to Gazette calculations based on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
January’s daily testing median is down 48 percent from the 7,793 median people tested a day from Oct. 21 through Nov. 20. before the Thanksgiving holiday.
The big question is: Why are fewer Iowans getting tested?
“We believe the increase in testing in the month prior was because Iowans were anticipating gathering with family and friends for the holidays,” said Sarah Ekstrand, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “As we moved into the new year, we saw decline a bit. We also know there have recently been bad weather days, which can also affect testing.”
In a news conference Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds also attributed the lower testing numbers to the holidays, on which days Test Iowa sites were closed, and to cold weather.
Ekstrand said testing supplies are “steady” and that officials “will continue to monitor testing totals and encourage all Iowans who have been exposed or have symptoms to get tested.”
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She also noted that public health officials are carefully watching COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have been declining from a spike but still are at about last summer’s worst level.
State officials previously have said the number of tests given in Iowa doesn’t always match the number of individuals tested — which is the data the state provides online to the public.
Some Iowans in group quarters, such as prisons or nursing homes, are tested multiple times during an outbreak. Negative tests are included in the daily counts initially, but if and when that person tests positive, those previous tests are removed from the state data.
Eastern Iowa officials have confirmed testing numbers are falling.
The UI’s Influenza-Like Illness clinic, which reports its results to the state, had five days with more than 1,000 tests in November. But since Jan. 1, the daily numbers have been in the 400 to 500 range.
“We’ve definitely seen a trend of decreasing testing,” Highland said.
In Linn County, ”case counts are down locally, so the decrease in testing may be due to fewer people being identified as close contacts,” said Kaitlin Emrich, assessment and health promotion supervisor for Linn County Public Health.
“It may also be due to perceived protection from the vaccine,” she said.
However, with fewer than 2,000 Linn County residents — or less than 1 percent of the population — having received both shots of the COVID-19 vaccine “it is still important to implement measures to reduce spread, including being tested,” Emrich said.
Dr. Patricia Winokur, executive dean of the UI’s Carver College of Medicine and an infectious disease specialist, said lower testing numbers make it hard for public health specialists to track the disease in the community.
“Numbers of people that are going to their provider’s office, going to Test Iowa, or going to our drive-through testing is going down,” Winokur said. “And I think people are getting a little complacent, and we really want people to get a lot of testing.”
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Some people also might avoid testing because their symptoms are mild and they don’t want to deal with the repercussions of a positive test, Highland said.
“The test and that positive result ultimately brings on a lot of hardship. Staying home from work, keeping kids home from school,” she said.
Highland said she knows patients who have attributed symptoms to allergies or a cold until their bosses made them get tested for COVID-19.
“Just because one person has mild symptoms doesn’t mean the people they expose will have mild symptoms as well,” she said. “While some people fare very well, the people they expose can get very sick.”
Free COVID-19 testing offered Jan. 8 at the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center brought out 321 people, according to Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, which is the Iowa City and Coralville area convention and visitors bureau. Of those tested, 307 were negative, six were positive and eight were inconclusive, he said.
“We only agreed to test asymptomatic people so anyone experiencing symptoms would have been directed to an area hospital,” he said. “It was pretty obvious through our discussions that this was a pretty conscientious group of people who wanted to be helpful, but also were curious.”
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Vanessa Miller and John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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