Information surrounding COVID-19 continues to change rapidly and as many of us have found, learning the latest and most accurate news about the virus is no simple task when mixed with politics. This past week it was revealed that information posted on the CDC website regarding testing guidelines was modified by White House officials, bypassing the typical review process the CDC upholds to ensure only accurate information is shared with the public. The Centers for Disease Control has historically been apolitical, maintaining a distinct separation from outside influence- with some even calling it the “gold standard” for public health institutions. Now that is called into question, leaving Americans questioning the integrity of any information from the previously dependable source.
An Apolitical History
The CDC relies on a tiny D.C. office to navigate interactions with the White House or Capitol Hill. Even when the rest of its staff are taken into account, the CDC has just a fraction of the connected political staffers that can help other health-focused agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in their Washington liaisons. And while deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies and influential research universities often help agencies like FDA and the National Institutes of Health press Congress for bigger budgets and influence, they have little to gain by advocating for CDC. But that smaller footprint may have led to an inability to fend off advances from the White House to politicize information and utilize their platform for political gain. In an environment where accurate information is vital for many leaders and the public to make sound decisions, the breakdown of informational integrity hinders our country’s ability to overcome the virus.
CDC Impartiality Compromised
This isn’t the first time that informational guidelines have been modified to reflect a political stance rather than scientific recommendation backed by rigorous studies. Guidance to help churches safely resume in-person services in May originally recommended that the use of choirs be suspended or at least decreased due to evidence that choirs had been associated with a number of super-spreading events. That advice was removed as a result of objections from Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Former CDC Director Tom Frieden called that revision “unjustifiable. It’s putting people’s lives at risk.”
Guidelines regarding school openings were compiled by the CDC over the summer, taking into consideration the most current information about how children spread the virus and the potential impact on communities (you can find the original document here). It met overwhelming objection from the White House, with President Trump calling the guidelines “impractical”. Vice President Pence undermined the agency in stating “None of the CDC’s recommendations are intended to replace state and local rules and guidance.” The White House consequently added an introduction to a modified version of the guidelines– released two weeks after the original guidelines- stating that “The most important thing is for kids to go back to school.” At a time when state, local, and school officials look to agencies like the CDC for parameters to guide decisions that will directly impact their communities, this convoluted information creates a serious barrier.
What Are Covid-19 Testing Guidelines?
In late August, the CDC website was modified to reflect a new set of guidelines regarding who needs to be tested for COVID-19. The previous suggestion was that anybody who had been exposed to an individual who had since tested positive for the virus, regardless of whether they were exhibiting symptoms, should get tested. Pharmacies and providers made testing more widely available (although still with priority to those who had symptoms) in order to accommodate more testing.
The update made in late August changed those guidelines to state, “If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have symptoms, you do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one”. The stark change was met with outcry country-wide. Many pointed to the obvious redirection to align with White House suggestions, which ignores the already proven occurrence of asymptomatic spread in the U.S. and the need for precaution.
This past week (9/18/2020), the CDC website was yet again modified to reflect the original recommendations:
“Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection. Testing is recommended for all close contacts of persons with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested.”
Where Is Testing Available?
CVS, Walgreens, NextCare Urgent Care, and other pharmacies are offering $0 cost (check with your insurance to confirm) testing for qualified individuals. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act ensures that COVID-19 testing is free to anyone in the U.S., including the uninsured. You can find additional information here.
Pima County is also hosting testing sites (many without an appointment)- you can find locations and information here. Most testing locations require answering a short questionnaire regarding exposure, symptoms, onset of such symptoms, among other details.
Many local offices, including Courtney Medical Group, offer COVID-19 testing to their patient population- reach out to your provider for details.
Results for tests vary from 2-3 days to same day (for rapid tests). Contact the test administer for specific availability information.