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Coronavirus Testing Has Gotten Better, But The U.S. Still Does Not Have Enough Tests


The CDC's advice to Americans right now is incredibly simple. The agency says, quote, "the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with." Still, many Americans plan to travel, and for some of them, the plan is to get tested before they leave. Is that a safe strategy, though? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has some answers. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: There has been a chronic shortage of tests since the pandemic started. Where do we stand now?

STEIN: So, you know, testing has gotten a lot better in this country. More than 171 million tests have now been done. And it's, you know, way easier to get a test these days. More than 1.6 million tests are now being done every day, you know. And there are lots of different kinds of tests out there and new ones getting authorized all the time. All that said, the U.S. still really doesn't have nearly enough tests. U.S. really needs millions of tests every day to get ahead of this virus. And this massive surge of infections that's going on right now is making things worse again. Long lines have started forming again around the country. Supplies are running short. And it's taking longer to get results.

KING: Yes, I waited in a long line myself earlier this week. A lot of people are rushing to get tested right now so that they can travel. What are the options? What's available?

STEIN: So, you know, the main test that's out there is still the one known as a PCR test. It's the one most people would probably get at, say, you know, one of those drivethrough sites or at their doctor's offices. It's very accurate, but it requires sending samples off to a lab. So it usually takes at least a couple of days to get the results, if not more.

KING: And there have to be faster tests.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. There's the one, you know, the White House used, the Abbott ID NOW. It's not quite as accurate, but it produces results in about 15 minutes. And the FDA authorized a new one just this week. You know, it's pretty cool. It's the first test designed to let people test themselves in their own homes. You know, no need to wait in line somewhere to get tested like you did or send the sample off in the mail. You can do the whole thing at home in about 30 minutes. The problem is right now, it still requires a prescription and it won't be widely available for quite some time.

KING: Can you tell me about something we've been hearing about - antigen tests? What are those? What does that mean?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. These antigen tests, they're much cheaper and easier to make and to use than those other tests. And they're really fast. They can tell you whether you're positive in minutes and are available in the millions already with millions more in the pipeline. So, you know, a lot of people think they could be a real game changer for, you know, doing things like screening students and teachers and waiters and factory workers to keep our schools and our economy open. But there is a big debate about these tests, just about how reliable they are. But proponents say they're really good at spotting people when they're the most contagious, which is the most important thing.

KING: OK. So there are a lot of different testing options out there. Does this mean that we can use tests in order to get out of wearing masks and social distancing and all that?

STEIN: Well...


STEIN: Unfortunately - yeah. Here's the bottom line, Noel, I hate to say it, but none of these tests are 100% guaranteed get-out-of-jail-free cards. Even the most accurate tests can miss infected people. Plus, you know, it can only tell you whether or not you're infected at the moment you get tested. You could, you know, catch the virus on your way home. So it's kind of dangerous - it's actually really dangerous to just rely on one negative test, especially to do something like, you know, sit next to grandma at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year.

KING: Hence the CDC's advice to just stay home. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.