Not even a week after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced it would offer residents free mail-in PCR tests for COVID-19, the program has been put on pause.
In another blow for a region crippled by a surge in omicron variant cases, the county’s partner in the program, Temple City-based biotech firm Fulgent Genetics, said it will not accept new orders for PCR testing kits until Jan. 12, citing a backlog in processing them. The delay comes after holiday season travel spurred a huge rise in demand for tests, leading to shortages and creating long wait times at testing centers.
The sudden demand has slowed labs' ability to process PCR tests from California residents within two days, when the data is most useful for individuals and public health experts to slow the spread of the virus. According to state data, the number of PCR tests turned around in one day between Dec. 19 and 25 was 78%—7% lower than the previous week.
“There is a limit for testing for people who need it, which would be people at risk for complications or who have symptoms,” Jeff Klausner, an infectious disease expert and member of the state's coronavirus testing task force, told dot.LA. “Unfortunately the ‘worried well’ are consuming a lot of testing resources.”
Klausner’s sentiment—that PCR tests should be reserved for high-risk groups and those who are symptomatic—is indicative of a gradual change in public health messaging around the pandemic. Officials who previously were highly cautious, encouraging people to stay indoors and get tested frequently, have since shortened quarantine guidelines while still urging people to wear masks and get vaccinated.
That evolution in messaging comes despite California having scaled up its testing infrastructure and on-boarded over 100 commercial, medical, and state-run labs to process hundreds of thousands of PCR swabs per day. Among L.A. County residents aged 12 and over, 85% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, face coverings remain mandated in most public settings.
Reliance on Rapid Tests
The state’s testing shortage comes as the Biden administration ramps up its plan to send 500 million free, at-home rapid tests to U.S. residents beginning this month, with the goal of alleviating the burden on PCR testing facilities.
But the more unreliable rapid tests may pose their own issues amid the emergence of the omicron variant. Though scientists have identified roughly a dozen COVID variants, omicron is particularly notable in that it has at least 32 mutations and, though not as deadly, is far more transmissible.
“[The virus] becomes more infectious because that's what a virus wants to do,” said Rita Burke, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine. “Once it infects as many people as possible, it doesn't want to kill them because then it stops its own cycle.”
Rapid tests work by taking a sequence of the virus and matching it to the sequence found in a saliva or nasal swab sample. The significant mutations in the omicron variant make it harder for those rapid tests to test for the virus in the early days of an infection.
“When the variant comes out, if people are using tests designed for a different variant, then [the tests] won't be able to detect it,” said Eleazar Eskin, a computer scientist and geneticist at UCLA who helped develop the SwabSeq COVID-19 test. “But it's only a kind of a short-term problem, because the newer versions of any test will take that into account.”
Klausner, the member of the state's coronavirus testing task force, said it’s time to abandon overcautious messaging and to instead save PCR tests for high-risk groups, the people who interact with them, and those who are symptomatic. Public health strategies have traditionally relied on identifying high-risk groups and creating targeted interventions.
“It's critical when there's a new context, such as a new virus or when there's a lot of people who are immune, that we change the strategy,” he said. “To do the same strategy over and over again and expecting new results, that's a sign of insanity.”
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It’s been almost seven years since Leonard Nimoy, the actor who created the role of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek,” passed away due to respiratory disease — but his character may be coming soon to a billboard near you, as part of a widening campaign to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.
The first round of the campaign, organized by Nimoy’s family and L.A. Care Health Plan with the blessing of ViacomCBS, has been in the works in Los Angeles since last May. One billboard design features Nimoy in his Mr. Spock role, giving the split-fingered Vulcan salute with the headline “Save Humanity: Get Vaccinated! It’s the Logical Thing to Do.” The other design shows mask-wearing humans in a Star Trek glow and takes full advantage of Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” catchline.
“The phrase ‘Live Long and Prosper’ spreads a message that my dad strongly believed in — not only for a long and healthy life, but it also represents peace, tolerance, diversity and unity,” Julie Nimoy, the actor’s daughter, said in a news release. “This project really is a continuation of his mission on lung health.”
Julie Nimoy’s husband, David Knight, told GeekWire in an email that the “L.A. campaign is only the first stop.”
Spotted!\n\n#roddenberry #thinkTREK #seeTREK\n#VaxLive #vaccinatepic.twitter.com/Rnjx4iGwEc— \ud835\ude83\ud835\ude91\ud835\ude8e \u2764 \ud835\ude98\ud835\ude8f \ud835\ude82\ud835\ude9d\ud835\ude8a\ud835\ude9b \ud835\ude83\ud835\ude9b\ud835\ude8e\ud835\ude94 (@\ud835\ude83\ud835\ude91\ud835\ude8e \u2764 \ud835\ude98\ud835\ude8f \ud835\ude82\ud835\ude9d\ud835\ude8a\ud835\ude9b \ud835\ude83\ud835\ude9b\ud835\ude8e\ud835\ude94) 1621897020
“New billboards in N.Y., Boston, Chicago, D.C., Seattle and Miami are already being discussed,” Knight wrote. “In addition, we’re currently speaking with the World Health Organization about additional billboards specifically on vaccine equity in major cities across the world.”
Knight and his wife are in charge of the Nimoy Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to heighten awareness about lung disease and prevention as a tribute to Leonard Nimoy. The foundation is also working to get a Vulcan-salute statue built outside Boston’s Museum of Science.
Last month, Julie Nimoy lent a sterling silver “Live Long and Prosper” necklace to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for a suborbital trip to space, as a follow-up to Star Trek captain William Shatner’s spaceflight in October.
This story first appeared on GeekWire.
Video game fans will have to enjoy gaming’s biggest convention from home again this year.
Despite being five months away, gaming trade group the Entertainment Software Association will make its annual Electronic Entertainment Expo—better known as E3—an online-only event this summer, instead of its usual blowout event at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Downtown L.A. The organizer cited the coronavirus pandemic amid the rapid, ongoing spread of the omicron variant.
“Due to the ongoing health risks surrounding COVID-19 and its potential impact on the safety of exhibitors and attendees, E3 will not be held in person in 2022,” the ESA said in a statement Thursday. “We remain incredibly excited about the future of E3 and look forward to announcing more details soon.”
E3 was staged as a remote affair for the first time last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, while the 2020 expo was fully canceled. The conference usually attracts a worldwide audience to Downtown L.A.; the ESA reported that more than 60,000 people visited the convention center during the three-day event in 2019. E3 also draws big-name game publishers like Nintendo, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. Games, Take-Two Interactive, and Microsoft’s Xbox.
But in recent years, even prior to the pandemic, many publishers began to reconsider shelling out thousands of dollars for an exhibition space at the expo, with some opting to use their own channels to roll out announcements in a cheaper, quicker fashion. In 2019, EA Games, Nintendo, and Sony Interactive Entertainment said they wouldn’t attend the conference, choosing instead to run their own, smaller press junkets.E3 is one of many events now grappling with the surge in coronavirus cases. Some of the tech industry’s biggest names are skipping in-person proceedings at the CES consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas this week, while L.A.’s Upfront Summit venture capital conference has been pushed back from late January to early March.