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Diagnostic labs feel ‘a lot more normal’ these days. Health officials say that’s a problem.

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Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Daily coronavirus cases in Michigan have shot up over the last few weeks, but the number of diagnostic tests run for the virus has risen much more slowly.

The average number of new daily cases of the virus has more than doubled since February 18, but testing has only increased about 10%.

Jacqueline Peacock is the director of laboratory operations at NxGen MDx, a diagnostic lab in Grand Rapids that processes samples from across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. She used to work until 2 a.m. and barely had time to eat most days during the peak of local outbreaks this winter, she said.

Now, with cases climbing again, Peacock said she almost wishes she were still that busy. It would mean people were taking the pandemic seriously.

“Things are feeling right now a lot more normal,” said Peacock. “But I am concerned that the dropoff is too great -- that people are not being tested not because they haven’t been exposed, but because they’re complacent.”

The comparatively low testing rates mean public health workers have a harder time tracking the spread of the virus and its variants.

“We still need to know who is positive so that we can quickly get them isolated and their close contacts quarantined,” said Dr. Josh Meyerson, the medical director for three local health departments in Northern Michigan.

And variants of the virus can only be detected if someone tests positive and their samples are submitted for genetic sequencing. Knowing which variants are where is key to the modelling that helps determine how tight the restrictions on businesses and public gatherings need to be to contain outbreaks, Meyerson said.

A higher proportion of more contagious variants, like the P.1 strain found this week in Bay County, means the virus can spread more easily, so pandemic restrictions would need to clamp down more to keep transmission in check.

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services is working to test more people for the virus more often, said spokesperson Lynn Sutfin.

“The state is moving forward with plans to ramp up testing for schools, businesses and nursing homes. We are expanding a mandatory testing protocol for all student athletes. We are offering pop-up testing to communities with higher transmission,” Sutfin said.

Michigan will also set up temporary testing sites to check for the virus in people returning from spring break trips, said Sutfin.

But availability of tests is only a small part of the problem, said local health leaders. The state already has hundreds of free testing sites, and there’s excess capacity at testing labs, said Peacock.

In the first months of the pandemic, shortages of testing equipment meant health officials tried to limit who was getting tested for the virus.

Now, Peacock said, labs have everything they need to run as many tests as they can get from people in Michigan.

She and Meyerson said they want more people to take advantage of the tests that are already available. “If you have any exposure, any risk of exposure, or any symptoms, you should get tested,” Meyerson said.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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