Sep 21, 2020 Thoughts/Opinions Will Brown

Problems with Mass Testing


This is an opinion piece. Every thought displayed and source chosen is to reinforce my own arguments.

As we begin our fourth week of “COVID classes,” it’s important to look back on the first three and reflect on the college’s response to the ongoing pandemic. By this point in time, every student has become acclimated to the new policies and procedures that surround us—with most agreeing with the importance of these policies and procedures, and few blindly disagreeing and disobeying them.

Another method that Alma College has utilized in the fight against COVID-19 is the mass testing of all students, faculty and staff on campus. It is important to note that initially the college was not interested in mass testing due to the point-in-time nature of the results: a student may walk away from the nasopharyngeal swab negative but then immediately come into contact with an individual who is positive, thus nullifying the test.

Clearly, the college has changed its mind on mass testing, but this by no means renders this scenario obsolete. Furthermore, as we continue with mass testing on Alma College’s campus, it’s important to note that this point-in-time nature characteristic of tests is not the only downside of mass testing.

A major problem with almost any test is its accuracy. When it comes to the accuracy of COVID-19 tests, it is often broken up into two parts: sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the ability for a test to correctly identify an individual that has the illness. Meanwhile, specificity is the ability for a test to correctly identify an individual that does not have the illness.

A test with good specificity is oftentimes described as having a low false positive rate. Similarly, a test with good sensitivity is oftentimes described as having a low false negative rate. Both of these rates are typically low for a given test, with ARUP Laboratories reporting the COVID-19 test having a false positive rate of 0.01%. This should hardly concern a single individual who is taking the test; however, as the number of individuals being tested rises, so does the prevalence of false negatives.

If we take COVID-19’s false positive rate and apply it to the population of the U.S., we very quickly see that this seemingly small rate results in 33,000 false positives out of 330,000,000 total residents. Clearly, this is a substantial amount of people. This also pushes the idea that while false positive rates might seem small for the individual, they mean much more when thrown into the context of mass testing.

According to data provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Gratiot County has rate of 1.33% when it comes to its inhabitants testing positive for COVID-19. If we take this and apply it to Alma College’s mass testing program, we see that around 23 individuals, out of the 1696 tested, would test positive. Using the aforementioned false positive rate, we can also find that only 1 student would falsely test positive.

In this scenario, the false positive rate is not problematic. However, as one might be able to deduce, if the false positive rate is ever larger than the overall positive rate for a given area, then more false positives will be identified than true positives.

ARUP Laboratories also reports that false positive rates are problematic for two reasons. The first is that it can result in an individual being subject to treatment that they do not need, which can lead to unnecessary financial and health consequences.

The second is that it can give the individual a false sense of security against the virus. They might assume, since they tested positive with no symptoms, that they are somehow ”stronger” than the virus. This false sense of security against the virus could potentially lead to the individual later contracting or transmitting the virus due to a lack of precautionary measures taken by that individual.

While false positive rates in the Alma College community are not a major concern, it is important to keep them in mind when evaluating our response to the pandemic. Mass testing may be beneficial now, but, like most COVID-19 policies and procedures, they will eventually become obsolete as society adapts to the virus. Naturally, the next question with all of this is when will Alma College become safe enough to where mass testing, social distancing, and guest/mask policies are no longer required?

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