NY’s COVID infection rate unclear as many at-home tests go unreported

New York’s true COVID-19 infection spleen remains unclear as scores of at-home rapid test results go unreported, while questions mount about disparities among those using the test kits.

As the highly contagious Omicron strain fueled COVID-19 surges in recent months, some counties asked people to self-report positive at-home tests via online portals. But the patchwork reporting, which is excluded from the state’s official daily case count, only offered a glimpse of the virus’ spread.

In contrast, state health officials and other counties decided against attempting to track the at-home test results, citing in part efforts to limit confusion amid challenges in verifying positives. They instead focused on lab-based test results, COVID-19 hospitalization rates and wastewater monitoring to gauge outbreak threats.

Meanwhile, Black people, as well as people with lower incomes and a high school education or less, were using at-home tests less than other demographic groups in New York and many other states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently.

Now, the gaps in at-home test use and reporting are unfolding as New York’s COVID-19 hospitalizations climbed 14% last weekunderscoring the urgency of utilizing the test kits efficiently to catch cases early and limit the virus’ spread.

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iHealth and Access Bio are two types of at home rapid COVID tests on February 22, 2022.

What we know (and don’t know) about at-home COVID tests in NY

It is difficult to determine how many at-home test positives reach counties statewide, as public reporting of the information varies widely.

Tompkins County, for example, has received 2,127 self-reported positives from at-home test kits since launching its online portal in late December. It includes the data in its daily reports posted online.

By contrast, Rockland County has not actively sought at-home test results, but rather offers an online form allowing people to generate isolation orders typically required by employers and schools.

Since early January, 415 isolation orders were generated, 208 of which were for at-home or over-the-counter tests, county officials said.

Onondaga County had been the only county to include its self-reported at-home test results in state data, accounting for 24% of its positive results between Dec. 30 and March 30, state data show. The state identified the issue and now excludes Onondaga’s at-home results.

Meanwhile, neighborhood groups, social media and online debates are filled with reports of widespread at-home positive results, prompting some New Yorkers to raise concerns about authorities failing to track the cases.

One is Kate Carpenter, who said she recently tried unsuccessfully to self-report at-home positives in Westchester County.

Carpenter and her husband tested positive on at-home test kits after their daughter received a positive lab-based PCR test result, which was prompted by a school-related exposure.

Westchester County’s online self-reporting form, however, required attaching a lab result, Carpenter said, noting her doctor’s office also only accepted lab-based positive results for inclusion in the official case count.

Carpenter, a 45-year-old health care writer from Pelham, described feeling frustrated by the lack of public reporting of at-home tests, noting “people are more likely to take precautions” such as wearing masks in public and avoiding crowds when cases are surging.

Further, the reduction of COVID-19 testing sites and new testing costs for uninsured Americans as federal aid dries up threaten to worsen the problem, Carpenter said, noting counties that gather and report at-home test results “recognize the value in having it. ”

Tyronn Hawkins of Ossining gets free Covid-19 home tests during an outreach event at the Open Door Family Medical Center in Ossining Feb.1, 2022.

What NY health officials say about at-home COVID testing

While the state Department of Health does not gather at-home test results from counties as part of its monitoring of cases statewide, the agency asserted its ongoing effort to distribute millions of the test kits is key to limiting the virus’ spread.

From January to March 31, nearly 70 million at-home tests had been distributed throughout New York, including over 33 million tests to schools, 19.5 million tests to nursing homes and adult-care facilities, and more than 12.5 million tests to local officials, state officials said.

Health Commissioner Mary Bassett in a statement noted the state’s plan for getting the tests out included a focus on equity, citing kits provided to food banks, public housing agencies and other local groups.

“The distribution of at-home COVID-19 tests is a critical tool helping to curb spread in our communities,” Bassett said.

Another 20 million at-home test kits were to be distributed through the spring, state officials said.

Central to concerns about disparity in test-kit use was a CDC report that looked at use nationally from Aug. 23 to March 12.

According to the survey, at-home test use was highest among:

  • People who identified as white.
  • Adults aged 30–39 years.
  • Those with annual household income above $150,000.
  • Those with postgraduate degrees.

In January, however, the federal government began distributing free at-home teststhe report noted, asserting if that was complemented with outreach and communication, it might help reduce disparities in COVID-19 testing by alleviating some supply and access barriers.

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at[email protected] and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud



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