JEFFERSON CITY — With COVID-19 testing rates dropping, and vaccination rates increasing, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services emphasized this week that testing is still an important part of containing the virus.
The number of tests conducted in the state, counting both PCR tests and the antigen tests whose results the state lists as “probable,” fell from nearly 810,000 in November to less than 480,000 in February, a Post-Dispatch review of state data shows.
With data in for just over half of March, the numbers for the month are on track to be even lower.
Through March 16, only 211,113 tests were completed, putting the state on pace to complete about 420,000 tests by the end of the month.
Dr. Randall Williams, DHSS director, told the Post-Dispatch the falling numbers of people getting tested prompted the department to send the press release on Monday.
Though the state has a low number of cases per thousand compared with other states, Williams said, he doesn’t want people to think the danger is gone.
“Our concern is that people will see the warm weather and people getting vaccinated and think they’re no longer at risk of getting COVID. And we don’t think that’s true,” he said, especially with the more contagious and deadly U.K. variant of the virus expected to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
The state’s case positivity rate has fallen from 17% in November to 4% so far in March. And hospitalizations, the clearest reflection of the virus’ intensity, have also fallen — from 2,862 at their peak in December to 822 as of Friday, according to state data.
The state’s seven-day average of confirmed positive cases fell to 343 on March 6. It has since ticked upward, but is nowhere near the high of 4,723 reached Nov. 20.
Dr. William Powderly said the lower number of COVID-19 tests reflects positive trends but also presents a problem for public health.
Powderly is the Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute for Public Health, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine, and co-director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine.
“People are not feeling like they have symptoms or feeling like they need to get tested,” he said.
But Powderly also said hospitalizations in the St. Louis region have plateaued for about two weeks rather than continuing to decrease, and it’s unclear which direction the numbers will head before more of the population is vaccinated.
“If we don’t test people on a regular basis we might not detect a rise in infections and be taken by surprise,” Powderly said.
“We really do need to continue to be vigilant,” he added.
The Monday press release from DHSS said Missourians should not stop getting tested if they show COVID-19 symptoms or have significant contact with a confirmed case.
“We remain concerned about variants arising throughout the US, so this means prevention measures and widespread testing are that much more crucial to move us beyond COVID-19,” Williams said in the release.
The availability of the tests in some parts of the state is declining.
Several testing sites recently closed in mid-Missouri because of low demand. The last day to receive a COVID-19 test through the Kansas City Health Department was Friday. The department cited low demand and the need to put resources into vaccination efforts.
Williams said testing sites shutting down was “a concern, but not a great concern.”
He said it’s understandable health care providers would shift resources to vaccination, and that the Biden administration is working to reduce reliance on mass testing and vaccine sites.
The goal is to “mainstream” testing and vaccines by providing them through pharmacies and doctors’ offices, Williams said.
The state and the Missouri Primary Care Association still plan to host community testing events two to three times per week in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, according to the release. Those events are free and open to all Missouri residents, including people without symptoms.
Community testing events are also planned for 23 counties around the state this month.
The DHSS website hosts a list of COVID-19 testing sites statewide. A map of available testing sites in the St. Louis area can be found on the city website.
The department’s release also emphasized the importance of continuing other COVID-19 precautions, such as hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks when around people outside one’s household.
It encouraged Missourians to get a vaccine when one becomes available.