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 results collected through the new site — makemytestcount.org — will fill some of the gap in data left after many people turned to in-home COVID-19 testing rather than the lab tests authorities had closely watched earlier in the pandemic.
Federal health officials have faced calls for more than a year to stand up a mechanism to better track home testing. Last week saw just 2.3 million total COVID-19 tests – both positive or negative – reported by labs to the CDC. That is the lowest level since the earliest months of the pandemic. The scale of home testing being done likely "dwarfs" that, estimates Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.
Federal health authorities have warned for months that publicly reported COVID tests are vastly undercounting the spread of the virus in the community. That complicates a range of efforts that had relied on case counts, from issuing recommendations on when Americans should don masks to measuring the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.
And Tromberg, who also heads the NIH's RADx program that spearheaded the website's development, says the effort could be a key step in making it easier for doctors to get their patients tested and treated for infectious diseases.
"This is really a kind of essential companion piece to the development of at-home testing. It's part of the arc of moving testing from laboratories to the home, and creating a highway that allows for the reliable and accurate transmission of that information," Tromberg said in an interview with CBS News.
The website is just the latest entry into a web of behind-the-scenes infrastructure the federal government has poured resources into developing over the course of the pandemic, standardizing the way this kind of data could be shared securely among health authorities and doctors.
Some mobile apps developed by testing companies can already use this plumbing to send their results to public health systems. The platform had already been deployed also to enable the reporting of results through the NIH's at-home "Say Yes!" testing pilots.
The Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response is also working on a way the website might be incorporated into the Biden administration's "test-to-treat" initiative, connecting people who test positive with COVID treatments like Pfizer's Paxlovid.
"What if you could do a test at home, and then transmit this information to your health care provider, and then actually get your treatment delivered to your house? You need to have this kind of backbone," Tromberg said.
The Food and Drug Administration could also ask test manufacturers to add the website to their box in hopes of boosting awareness of the new site, he suggested.
"We're hoping that states will get on board, and advertise the QR code, and that it just sort of gets out there. So people don't say, 'gosh, I don't know how to report my test,'" Tromberg said.
In addition to whether tests are positive or negative, the portal asks people to report their age and zip code. Other details can also be contributed, like race and whether you have symptoms, though answering these additional questions is optional.
Tromberg said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is "very interested" in potentially releasing data collected through the site, possibly incorporating the figures into their weekly updates on the virus.
However, the self-reported figures will be an imperfect solution for scientists frustrated with the growing hurdles to tracking this stage of the pandemic.
Not every American will be interested or know how to report their test results, Tromberg acknowledged, and some might do so inaccurately.
"It's just another data point. And I think it's one of those things that it's really easy to say, 'well we don't need that.' But the fact of the matter is, however you look at it, the laboratory tests is a very, very small understanding of the total number of people who are taking tests," Tromberg added.
The CDC did not return a request for comment for this story.
Officials have floated other alternatives in the hunt for a "ground truth" on infections from the virus. One proposal has been to model surveillance on the United Kingdom's approach, which relies on ongoing cohort studies and surveys.
"It's remarkable that the analysts in the U.K. basically don't use case counts very much, because they have this much better source of data for their models," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's top forecasting science official, Marc Lipsitch, said in a May interview with The New England Journal of Medicine.
for more features.