As schools and businesses return in-person, developing a COVID-19 testing strategy that can promptly detect infections among each unique population will be an essential task to remain open. UnitedHealth Group has stepped in to assist the effort with its COVID-19 Testing Strategy Simulator.
The calculator, which is available for free from UnitedHealth Group’s research arm, lets users test out different scenarios based on the type of test, population size, testing frequency, timeframe and more. It shows the estimated number of COVID-19 infections during the testing period, how much testing will cost per person and the number of potential false positives.
To develop the methodology for the calculator, UnitedHealth Group conducted a study to see which combination of testing variables – such as test sensitivity, testing frequency, sample pooling, disease prevalence, externally acquired infections, symptom checking and test cost – resulted in an optimal surveillance strategy for schools and businesses.
The results were published earlier this year in PLOS One and demonstrate that frequently testing with “a moderate or high sensitivity test and minimal results delay” tends to work best for organizations. Pooling the test samples also showed to be an effective way to manage costs without jeopardizing model performance.
UnitedHealth Group says its calculator can be used by a variety of institutions to create a testing strategy best suited to their needs, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Organizations will need to determine what works best for them based on their population, their financial setting and the disease prevalence in their community, according to the study.
“Our findings demonstrate that it is not only critical to choose the right test in terms of performance in asymptomatic individuals, but to use the test in the defined population at the optimal frequency to reduce the risk of case escalation,” the researchers said in the study.
“Optimization is further enhanced at the population level by understanding of underlying disease prevalence and utilization of pooling to reduce cost and increase efficiency. The ‘ideal’ test strategy must be balanced with the practicalities of cost per person to ensure sustainability.”
WHY THIS MATTERS
The U.S. has been in the middle of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths since early July. During the week of Sept. 24, the country averaged more than 114,000 new cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a substantial jump from the end of June when the U.S. was reporting a weekly average of around 12,000 new cases.
This wave of infection is primarily caused by the highly infectious Delta variant, which currently makes up 98.4% of cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Over the last year and a half, widespread testing has emerged as a key strategy for managing the pandemic. While it hasn’t been able to single-handedly end the pandemic, experts call population testing an “invaluable guide” for tracking the viral spread and creating pandemic responses.
THE LARGER TREND
Figuring out how to safely run schools and businesses during the pandemic has been a key task since the early days of COVID-19. A number of companies have offered their services to help get these institutions back to normal.
Last year, Wellfleet and binx partnered to offer universities their COVID-19 test kits to support community-wide testing.
Medical device maker Masimo rolled out a back-to-work tool of its own, the SafetyNet-OPEN app and connected devices. When used together, the system identifies users who are most at risk of infection, traces possible exposures, monitors users’ vital signs and generates daily risk scores that direct users to stay home, get tested or seek treatment.
CVS has been a big name in the return-to-work space, first with its Return Ready offering that helps organizations test, screen and contact trace among its population and then with its partnership with Salesforce to create a single digital, data-driven testing and monitoring program.
Since COVID-19 vaccines have become available in the U.S., companies have also begun creating tools to help manage vaccinations in schools and offices.
Eden Health created a dashboard that allows employees to opt into sharing their vaccine records. Buoy Health developed a tool of its own that helps employers gauge their workforce’s interest in the COVID-19 vaccine and design educational strategies around inoculation.