Americans now have a way to anonymously report their at-home COVID-19 test results to health authorities: a new website from the National Institutes of Health, announced this week. Officials hope the results collected through the new site – makemytestcount.org – to fill the data gap left after many people turned to at-home testing for COVID-19 instead of the lab tests that authorities had closely monitored earlier in the pandemic.
Federal health officials have faced calls for more than a year to create a mechanism to better track home testing. Just 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 were reported last week tests – both positive and negative – the laboratories report to the CDC. This is the lowest level since the first months of the pandemic. Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, estimates that the scale of home testing is likely to be “exceeding.”
Federal health officials have warned for months that public testing for COVID significantly underestimates the spread of the virus in the community. That complicates a range of efforts that have relied on case numbers, from issuing guidance on when Americans should wear masks to measuring the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.
And Tromberg, who also heads NIH’s RADx program, which spearheaded the development of the website, says the effort could be a key step in making it easier for doctors to screen patients and treat infectious diseases.
“It’s a really important companion to the development of home testing. It’s part of moving testing from the lab to the home and creating a backbone that allows for reliable and accurate transmission of that information,” Tromberg said in an interview with CBS News.
The website is just the last entry into the backstage network infrastructure the federal government has committed resources to development throughout the pandemic, standardizing a way to securely share such data between health authorities and doctors.
Some mobile apps developed by testing companies can already use this system to send results to health systems. The platform has already been deployed to also report results through the home NIH “Say Yes!” pilot testing.
The Strategic Readiness and Response Administration is also working to ensure that the site can be incorporated into the Biden administration “trial for treatment” an initiative that connects people who test positive to a treatment for COVID, such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid.
“What if you could do a test at home and then communicate that information to your health care provider and then actually get treatment delivered to your home? You need to have that foundation,” Tromberg said.
The Food and Drug Administration could also ask test manufacturers to add the website to their box in hopes of raising awareness of the new site, he suggested.
“We’re hoping that states will join us and promote the QR code and that it will just take off. So that people don’t say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know how to report my analysis,'” Tromberg said.
In addition to whether they test positive or negative, the portal asks people to report their age and zip code. You can also enter other information, such as your race and whether you have symptoms, but you don’t have to answer these additional questions.
Tromberg said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “very interested” in potentially releasing data collected through the site, possibly including the numbers in its weekly virus updates.
However, self-reported numbers will be an imperfect solution for scientists frustrated by the growing obstacles to tracking this stage of the pandemic.
Tromberg acknowledged that not every American will be interested or know how to report their test results, and some may do so inaccurately.
“It’s just another data point. And I think it’s one of those things where it’s very easy to say, “well, we don’t need that.” But the thing is, no matter how you look at it, the lab tests are very, very little representative of the total number of people who get tested,” Tromberg added.
The CDC did not return a request for comment for this story.
Officials highlighted other alternatives in the search for the “ground truth” about the virus. One suggestion was to model surveillance based on the UK approach, which relies on ongoing cohort studies and surveys.
“Notably, analysts in the U.K. generally don’t use case counts very often because they have a much better source of data for their models,” said Mark Lipsich, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s chief forecasting scientist. May interview from The New England Journal of Medicine.