Omicron spreads as free home tests are set to roll out

Starting Saturday, private insurers are required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home testing kits, while those without insurance can get a free kit from the federal government. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases rose by another 800,000 across the U.S. Hospitals are filling up even as deaths have risen at a slower pace. Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s hospital joins from Boston.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Doctor Jeremy Faust is an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

    So, Dr. Faust, here we are two years into this, we are still hearing about hospital systems that are overwhelmed this long into this pandemic. I mean, I'm talking to you from New York who went through this horrible surge in the beginning in March of 2020, it was supposed to be the warning sign for every other hospital system in the country. And here we are almost two years later, and we're still seeing full page ads taken out by hospitals saying, Please help us where our doctors and nurses are overwhelmed.

  • Jeremy Faust:

    Yes. And when we look back on what we did in 2020 with this very long, protracted shelter in place and shut down a lot of times, people don't remember that we actually did achieve one of the major objectives of that action, which was to keep hospitals from overflowing. So really, what we're looking at now is really the same question that we had early in 2020, which is can we keep the hospitals safe? The difference now is that we can actually track this. We have tests. We know how this virus behaves in different age groups and vaccination status. So we actually can know when the growth of virus in one area or another is putting a hospital at risk. And as a result of that, we can actually do shorter term measures if the goal is just to keep the hospital safe. We now can achieve that because we can follow it in a very short period of time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We've heard this idea that this will be a virus that is endemic in the population. We might treat it like the flu in the future. Right now, it's still far more deadly than the flu. But what can we do to sort of decrease its potency and increase our resilience against it?

  • Jeremy Faust:

    I think we've gotten a lot of the way there. If you are a person who is fully vaccinated or boosted, if necessary for older and sicker populations, you actually are likely to experience something like the flu if you get coronavirus. We're not seeing 2020 pneumonia in boosted and vaccinated people. That's just not what happens. So we actually have achieved that. The way to get this systemically there is to get kids vaccinated, under five years old is obviously a huge area. There's another risk group that I think I know is under-vaccinated and under-boosted–this is pregnant women. Bad outcomes in terms of maternal mortality, in terms of stillbirths. So we are so much closer than people realize. But the problem is we still have tons of unvaccinated people who get this awful, deadly pneumonia. And we also have a variant on our hands, which is tipping people over the edge in terms of exacerbating their chronic conditions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How significant of an impact will home tests to be for the entire population of the United States that has different levels of access to testing?

  • Jeremy Faust:

    I really think it's a step in the right direction to have home tests. I think the idea of sending them to people is a much better than the idea of asking people to go try to find one because they're really hard to find, they can be expensive. The whole idea of rapid tests is a very important one. It's the idea that it tells you, are you really very likely to be contagious. If we use rapid tests the way many of us have been advocating since really since they came on the market correctly, they achieve what we really need, which is to be able to keep doing many of the things of regular life without disruptions, even when coronavirus is around. I think there's this sense that if we test too much that we will panic and not return to life, and it's actually the opposite. If we ignore this, we don't diagnose these conditions, then it spreads about the time we realize it, it's out of control, it's at a nursing home. So rapid tests actually allow us to avoid things like staying home and not doing our regular activities. The test to return to work, the test to stay after exposure, these actions really reflect the progress we've made in terms of being able to track this virus. The more tests we have for free, the better we are in terms of health and the better we are actually economically because people can go about their business knowing that they are not a risk to their neighbors and their colleagues.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Jeremy Faust of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Thanks so much.

  • Jeremy Faust:

    Thanks.

Listen to this Segment