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VERIFY: At-home COVID tests are skewing case counts lower, here's why officials aren't as focused on that

Health officials say at-home test kits aren't reported to authorities, meaning cases are undercounted, but they say cases aren't the future of COVID-19 monitoring.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It has now been two years since North Carolina reported its first COVID-19 case, and for the first time, the state is seeing widespread policy moves signaling an exit to the pandemic.

One of those moves is how health officials measure the virus's spread in the community.

The Question

A WCNC Charlotte viewer wrote to the VERIFY team, wanting to know if COVID-19 case counts were skewed, if numbers are down, as case trends suggest, and whether at-home tests are messing with the metrics.

First, are at-home COVID-19 tests skewing case counts?

Second, is COVID-19 spread actually trending down?

Sources

The Answer

This is true.

Yes, at-home COVID-19 tests are skewing case counts, and likely skewing them lower than reality. And yes, COVID-19 spread is actually trending down, even when you remove the undercounted cases from the equation.

"There's no consistent way for individuals to report the results of the at-home test kits, so those are not included in any estimates," Washington said, noting home testing is not the only factor making current case counts an underestimate.

"Obviously, everyone who gets COVID isn't getting tested and hasn't been tested," Washington said. "If anything, it's an underestimate."

However, the fallibility of case counts is the reason health officials track several COVID-19 metrics, like hospitalizations, deaths, and now, even viral samples in the wastewater -- metrics that do not necessarily rely on people to go get tested or report the results they get at home.

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Those passive and non-behavior-based measurements are likely the future of COVID-19 monitoring going forward because both the greater prevalence of at-home testing and the lower severity of COVID-19 now make case counting somewhat obsolete.

"We're really shifting our focus away from case counts and more towards indicators of severity, and this really goes hand-in-hand to make forward progress as we move out of pandemic response and into an endemic response," Traxler said.

The CDC's new COVID-19 spread tracker reflects the changing values, using both per capita cases and percentage of hospital beds used for COVID-19 patients to determine the virus's burden on each county.

A look at North Carolina's COVID-19 dashboard shows hospitalizations are indeed down and viral traces in the wastewater statewide are declining too, meaning COVID-19 spread is lower than during the omicron surge.

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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