MILWAUKEE — A surge in COVID cases in Wisconsin is leading to far more people using at-home tests to find out if they are positive for the virus. Now, several local health departments say they no longer have the capacity to track reports of at-home positive test results.
People who get a PCR test at a mass testing site have their results sent to a lab for confirmation. A majority of at-home tests are not confirmed through a lab. Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services says that’s why those positive results are considered probable cases. Health experts say it’s likely leading to significant under-reporting of COVID cases.
Justin Rahm and his girlfriend say they have COVID symptoms, and after their at-home tests came back positive, they joined the PCR testing line outside Hayat Pharmacy to get a firm answer.
"The at-home test is just kind of your way of getting an idea, and if you have the symptoms or coming all the way here just if you can grab one of those, find out for sure when you come here,” he said.
At-home tests have been flying off pharmacy and retail shelves ever since Omicron became the dominant strain in Wisconsin.
"I did see that Walgreens was out and other stores were out and I said, ‘well that's sort of a hassle, why do it anyway?’” said Pam Schoessling.
North Shore’s health department posted on social media Tuesday saying people do not need to report their at-home positive test results. Watertown’s health department said the same because it can only do contact tracing for positive cases that are confirmed through a laboratory.
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"With that sheer number of case, we're unable to reach every positive case,” said Samroz Jakvani. “With the influx of at-home tests, that makes it really difficult for a lot of health departments to address that."
Jakvoni is an epidemiologist with the Jefferson County Health Department. He says they ask residents to email them if they have a positive at-home test result to follow up with each patient on what to do during quarantine. But Jakvoni says most of those reports they’re receiving aren’t being reported to the state.
"It's not the most perfect way but in a state where you have so many positive cases, the objective is to control the spread as much as possible, right?” he said. “So, if that rapid result helps someone to know that, ‘hey, I'm infectious, I can spread it to others, I should stay home’, there may not be that need for a follow up PCR that can take two, sometimes five to six days to get a positive result."
For months now, the state has been providing two sets of data on COVID cases, confirmed cases that were lab-tested, and probable cases which include at-home positive results. Jakvani says that means total cases are likely far higher than what is being reported.
"I think you'll find that in every state, not just Wisconsin with the advent of these at home tests,” he said.
Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services says it still encourages people who test positive using an at-home test to report it to their healthcare provider or local health department to help them determine close contacts and how to notify them.