SAN JOSE – In light of the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian is urging County staff to take immediate steps to significantly scale up the distribution of at-home COVID-19 tests and return later this month with a formal plan for comprehensive and robust test distribution.
Driven by the fast-spreading new omicron variant, COVID-19 infections in the U.S. have soared to more than one million new cases per day as officials warn that the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic may hit its peak by the end of January.
According to the County’s COVID-19 dashboards, up to 25,000 people in Santa Clara County are being tested for the coronavirus daily, representing a significant increase since July, with the seven-day average positivity rate increasing to 12.2% (and growing), the highest it has been since January 2021.
“People can’t take the appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the virus if they don’t know they are infected to begin with,” said Simitian. “Simply put, we can’t fight the virus if we can’t see it. And we can’t see it if we don’t test.”
“Public demand for COVID-19 testing has surged along with case counts, but unfortunately the supply of tests hasn’t kept pace,” he said. “For that reason, it is more important than ever to make testing easier and more widely accessible.”
Right now, at-home rapid COVID-19 testing is one of the few tools available to slow the spread of the virus, because it allows people to test themselves as soon as they learn they may have come into contact with the virus. Many of these rapid antigen tests are available without a prescription and return results within 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, the kits, which are sold online as well as at pharmacies such as Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, are expensive and becoming increasingly difficult to find.
“Luckily, the County is well-positioned to address this issue, and it should do so without delay,” said Simitian.
Efforts are already underway to expand at-home testing throughout the County in coordination with the federal and state governments. The County Public Health Department has partnered with community-based organizations to distribute more than 90,000 test kits received from the State, but as Simitian notes in his memo to the Board of Supervisors ,“this is only a small first step” in a county with nearly two million residents, particularly given that the need for testing will be ongoing while the tests are only a one-and-done point-in-time indicator.
Simitian expressed concern that almost two years into the pandemic, officials at every level of government still haven’t conquered the challenge of wide-scale and continued testing.
“This is hardly a new issue,” he said. “I remember raising this issue at our Board meeting in March 2020—almost two years ago—and we were assured that the federal government and the private market were expected to fill the need. But here we are again.”
Simitian said he was pleased that President Biden recently announced plans to distribute 500 million free rapid self-test kits this month.
“But we’ve got to generate a greater sense of urgency,” he said. “We’ve got to be quick. We’ve got to be nimble. We’ve got to adapt to changing circumstances, and fast.”
To expand access to at-home testing, the County could build on existing partnerships and potentially distribute even more at-home tests through clinics, hospitals, and community-based organizations throughout the County. Additionally, it may be possible for the County to tap into state and federal funds to help offset the costs involved and ensure that anyone who needs a test can get one.
Simitian is asking County staff to explore these and other options and present a plan at the January 11 Board of Supervisors meeting, detailing specific actions for the immediate distribution of at-home coronavirus tests to County residents.