Virginia Gov. Youngkin discourages asymptomatic COVID-19 testing amid supply issues In his COVID-19 action plan, he asks Virginians to "use discretion on testing."
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Virginia Gov. Youngkin discourages asymptomatic COVID-19 testing amid supply issues

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Steve Helber/AP hide caption

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Steve Helber/AP

Less than a week into office, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin released his COVID-19 action plan, which discourages people against getting tested if they are asymptomatic and emphasizes an individual's choice to get vaccinated.

The plan released on Thursday underscores Youngkin's more conservative approach to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. His approach is sometimes at odds with what various public health experts are recommending.

In his plan, Youngkin released new testing guidelines, aiming to mitigate existing supply challenges. The guidelines mirror ones issued early in the pandemic, when officials prioritized testing people with symptoms and high-risk groups over other populations. "The governor will discourage mass testing for the purposes of pre-screening, discourage asymptomatic individuals from testing, and urge healthy individuals with mild symptoms to stay home and use discretion on testing," the plan reads.

Youngkin plans on sending unused tests at state agencies and other non-essential facilities to hospitals, nursing facilities, and schools. He is also directing the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to rush pending orders for rapid tests. According to the plan, rapid tests will be prioritized for the following groups:

  • Students exposed to COVID-19 who need to test to stay in school
  • Health care and other essential employees who need to test to return to work
  • Vulnerable citizens like those in nursing homes or over 65 years old
  • People with serious medical conditions and their caregivers
  • People whose health care providers advised testing.
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Youngkin directed his State Health Commissioner to update the new guidance and expand eligibility once testing supplies increase. He is also depending on the White House to more quickly distribute tests to Virginia. Last week, the Biden administration announced efforts to scale up testing nationwide, including sending tests directly to people's homes if they sign up online and distributing millions more to schools. (Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that the federal government's orders for COVID-19 tests meant vendors had to pause the state government's orders.)

Issues with supply predate Youngkin's arrival to Virginia's Executive Mansion. Over the holidays, residents of Northern Virginia struggled to get tested at public sites. Public libraries that were dolling out free rapid tests supplied by the Virginia Department of Health were quick to run out of supply. Compared to neighboring D.C., where residents have plenty of opportunities to get PCR and raid tests, options in Northern Virginia have been meager throughout the pandemic.

Demand for testing still exists in Virginia, albeit not as high as during the holidays. Demand led the City of Alexandria to ask residents to cancel appointments at Curative kiosks if they no longer need them because someone else might. "Due to the current surge of the omicron variant, demand for PCR testing is currently very high and appointment availability is limited," according to a Jan. 11 release. Arlington County just opened a new testing site at Central Library by Quincy Park, but individuals need to make an appointment at the Curative website due to increased interest.

Studies have shown that people without COVID-19 symptoms can still spread the virus. Asymptomatic transmission was responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 cases, according to a model from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There appears to be a higher rate of asymptomatic transmission associated with the omicron variant, according to one study, which helps explain the variant's rapid spread.

"We should continue to test people who have a known exposure regardless of symptom status because by doing so we can identify cases early and ask them to isolate and in turn prevent transmission," Amira Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, tells DCist/WAMU via email.

Roess says testing can be focused if need be, concentrating resources on individuals who can infect a large number of people. That could mean testing people with known exposures.

Youngkin also named priorities for vaccination in his newly released plan. Youngkin already signed an executive order ending his predecessor's vaccination requirement for state workers. He also plans to send more mobile sites to rural communities, and devote more resources to education on vaccines. Still, his plan continues, Youngkin will "[empower] Virginians with choices, not mandates."

Several public health experts have said that mandates are what's now needed to get more people vaccinated. "The campaign to persuade all Americans to voluntarily accept coronavirus vaccinations has hit its limit," wrote Dr. Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard's School of Public Health, in a Post opinion piece over the summer.

Roughly 70 percent of Virginians are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Youngkin also signed an executive order that implements former Gov. Ralph Northam's state of emergency and helps Virginia hospitals respond to the latest surge. The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association called the order a "necessary step to grant important flexibilities."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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