Tagged Tests (Medical)

Breast Cancer Centers Urge Annual Scans, Counter to U.S. Guidelines

A panel recommends biennial screenings, starting at 50, but a new study took issue with the way hundreds of centers are telling women 40 and up to come in yearly. Some experts contend that frequent mammograms can “do more harm than good.”

My last breast cancer screening was “b.c.” — before Covid — just a few weeks before the mysterious new disease was detected in China. The timing was perfect: Everything was normal, and by the time we went into lockdown, my to-do list no longer included a mammogram.

But by November 2020, exactly one year after that scan, I started getting barraged by phone calls and text messages telling me I was due for another one.

“MAMMO MATTERS,” screamed one in all capital letters. “Breast cancer does not take a break during pandemics, and neither should you.” I was well aware that national health guidelines recommend a mammogram only every other year for women at average risk for breast cancer. But there has been a cacophony of advice in recent years as different groups recast their recommendations, often contradicting one another. So the messages were unnerving.

It turns out my imaging center is not alone in badgering women to have mammograms more frequently than the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force deems optimal. A recent study found that hundreds of breast centers tell women who are not at elevated risk of cancer to have a routine scan every year, and to start at 40.

The task force, however, recommends regular mammograms every two years starting at 50. Its guidelines do recommend that women in their 40s discuss mammography with their doctors, evaluate the risks and benefits and come to an individual decision. (The panel’s recommendations extend to age 74; it has said there is not enough evidence to make recommendations past that age.)

The new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine on March 15, was accompanied by a rather scathing editorial that said extra screening can do “more harm than good.”

“I don’t think breast cancer centers that have clear financial benefits from increasing mammography should be the ones that are giving out patient advice, particularly when it conflicts with the patient’s primary care provider’s advice and the task force’s advice,” said Dr. Rita F. Redberg, editor in chief of JAMA Internal Medicine, who co-wrote the editorial along with Dr. Anand R. Habib and Dr. Deborah Grady.

The American College of Radiology took umbrage, shooting back that it was “outrageous” to assert that breast cancer centers were promoting mammograms for financial reasons, and that the radiologists’ had a different set of guidelines.

When the pandemic started, both routine screenings and appointments triggered by troubling symptoms like the discovery of a lump were delayed as facilities shut down. Even when they reopened, many patients were reluctant to go in.

But Dr. Dana Smetherman, who chairs the American College of Radiology’s breast imaging commission, said the breast centers’ recommendations for more frequent screening predate the pandemic.

“What this study is telling us is that the experts in breast cancer in the U.S. do not support these recommendations,” Dr. Smetherman said in an interview, referring to the U.S. task force’s guidelines.

Indeed: Both the college of radiology and the American Society of Breast Surgeons recommend annual mammograms starting at age 40 (Dr. Redberg’s institution, the University of California, San Francisco, also recommends that schedule).

The American Cancer Society scaled back its recommendations recently, however, endorsing yearly scans starting at age 45, with the option of switching to every other year at age 54. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women at average risk start mammography at 40, but “every one or two years.”

The debate over screening frequency for breast cancer — the second leading cause of cancer death for women after lung cancer — dates back to 2009. That is when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent expert panel that reviews the evidence and provides guidance to doctors and insurers, rolled back its mammography recommendations for women who were deemed at average risk for breast cancer.

Screening can actually be harmful, especially for younger women, the panel found. False positive findings can trigger unnecessary procedures like biopsies, or lead to what experts call over-diagnosis — the aggressive treatment of slow-growing tumors that might never become life-threatening, but cannot be distinguished from fast-growing tumors.

When women had mammograms every other year, the harms of false positives and unnecessary treatment were reduced, the panel determined, while it found the life-saving benefits remained relatively unchanged.

But some experts believe the panel overstated the harms of more frequent screenings. The appropriate schedule for screenings can vary from doctor to doctor, and patient to patient, and has become quite confusing.

“Many women may not even be aware of the guidelines, or that there may be any downside to mammography, and that they have the option to begin screening at age 45 or 50,” Dr. Jennifer L. Marti, an assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine who led the new study, said in an interview. “In almost every other country, women start at 50.”

While many women might assume that “the pros of breast cancer screening outweigh the harms,” Dr. Marti said, that is not always the case for women who aren’t at elevated risk.

Dr. Marti and her co-authors, Mark Lee and Neal Patel, two Weill Cornell researchers, decided to examine the recommendations posted on the websites of some 606 breast cancer centers in the United States. They found that 376 centers — over half — made recommendations that differed from those of the U.S. task force, saying women at average risk for breast cancer should start imaging at age 40.

And 347 centers said women should not only start at 40, but continue annually.

More rigorous screening may be appropriate for some high risk groups, like Ashkenazi Jewish women, who are more likely to carry mutations that put them at risk for breast and ovarian cancer, and Black women, who were likely underrepresented in mammography screening trials, Dr. Marti said.

Women who want help assessing their individual risk to make screening decisions can use an online tool developed by Dr. Margaret Polaneczky, a gynecologist from Weill Cornell Medicine, and Elena Elkin, a research scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Marti suggested.

As for myself, I’ve been on a two-year plan for a while. I do regular breast self-examinations, and have clinical breast exams too. So even though I felt a smidgen of irrational guilt after receiving the text messages, I politely asked a receptionist to please stop calling. I promised I’d be in touch.

Why I Gave My Mosaic Embryo a Chance

‘It was like rolling the dice, except for someone you’ve never met.’

My husband and I were sitting in an Upper East Side office with deep-toned velvet couches and fluffy throw pillows, surrounded by photos of smiling babies, as the fertility doctor gave his spiel. He told us that after age 35, a woman’s chances of getting pregnant drop. Older women produce few normal embryos even with fertility treatment. But we’d have a healthy baby in our arms within a year — if we tested the embryos.

By testing the chromosomes in my embryos, he said, we could weed out the abnormal embryos that may lead to miscarriage or a child with disabilities and only use viable ones.

I’ve always been a late bloomer — I met my husband at 37 and married at 39. I was in good health but pushing 40, with diminishing egg count and quality. After six months of trying to conceive on our own, we wanted all the help we could get. My husband and I jumped at the embryo testing suggestion.

After two long rounds of in vitro fertilization, we had five embryos, but the genetic testing deemed four of them “abnormal,” meaning they contained extra or missing chromosomes. Our fifth embryo, a girl, was what our genetic counselor called “mosaic,” meaning it had both abnormal and normal cells.

Starting in the late 1990s, doctors testing fertilized eggs classified them as normal or abnormal, then added the classification “mosaic” in 2015. Mosaic embryos can be either low- or high-level, depending on the number of abnormal cells. Twenty percent of tested embryos are mosaic.

Ours was a low-level mosaic embryo, with a few cells having an extra 22nd chromosome. Scientists are still trying to understand mosaicism, but this meant our embryo could be normal and lead to a healthy baby; she could have genetic abnormalities that would lead to miscarriage; or she could be born with congenital heart defects, asymmetrical development (meaning one side of her body could look like it was melting while the opposite side looked normal) or other disabilities that would cause her to use a wheelchair for life. It was like rolling the dice, except for someone you’ve never met.

It turns out there are a lot of online communities for mosaic kids and their families, including one on Facebook dedicated specifically to mosaics with an extra 22nd chromosome. Some adults lived normal lives and only find they have mosaic +22 later in life. Some women who were pregnant with babies with mosaic +22 miscarried. Children — ranging from newborns to young adults — had varying developmental challenges.

What scared me most was that in girls, the extra 22nd chromosome could cause infertility. I felt selfish for wanting her so desperately that I would allow her into the world without this same opportunity.

We had to make a fast choice: do a third cycle of I.V.F., hoping to get a normal embryo, or risk transferring the mosaic. Should we first try the mosaic embryo or risk having more nonviable embryos to agonize over? Because of the risks to the fetus and the developmental challenges our baby might face, the genetic counselor advised us to not transfer.

I had always hoped my future children wouldn’t be short like me. My husband, who sprouts freckles in the sun, hoped they would inherit my darker skin. Otherwise, we had no lofty dreams of them going to Harvard or making any “world’s most beautiful baby” list. We picked a dog that was the runt of the litter, with a lopsided face, because we thought she was modern art. But that’s a lot different from bringing a child into the world knowing it had a risk of living a difficult life.

It was a lot to take in. I wasn’t scared that my life would be curtailed if I brought up a child with special needs — I was ready to dedicate myself to a child. But I worried that my wanting a child was blinding me to some of my potential shortcomings. Was I capable of giving up everything to concentrate on this person who would need me in ways I couldn’t even fathom yet? I was terrified that I couldn’t handle having a child with special needs and would take it out on her.

I was also a little embarrassed that I cared so much about having a “perfect” baby that fit the standard 46-chromosome human body. Who was I to make this life and death decision for another human?

But it turns out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Because genetic tests of I.V.F. embryos are far from perfect.

“Labs only test five cells from around 150 that make up the fertilized egg,” said Dr. Hugh Taylor, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think we have full information on an embryo based on those few cells.”

A recently published study of 1,000 mosaic embryos found those that progressed into a late-term pregnancy and full term birth had similar odds of being born without any discernible genetic differences to a normal embryo. But there were no guarantees.

I didn’t want to try another I.V.F. cycle. In late February 2020, we decided to transfer the embryo into my uterus — just in time for New York City to shut down during the pandemic.

Five months later, I got a call from a physician who was filling in for my doctor; she canceled my appointment, claiming she was uncomfortable transferring a mosaic embryo. I was livid and overcome with grief.

“The larger question that emerges with embryo testing is who gets to take on the risk of possibly bringing a child with potential disabilities into the world,” Dr. Taylor said. “The decision should not be left to physicians. Patients should be given the freedom to decide, and properly counseled in cases where there are abnormalities that will inevitably lead to death.”

Parents I had met online described wheeling or driving their frozen abnormal and mosaic embryos in unwieldy metal tanks to other clinics when their physicians refused to transfer. Fortunately, my regular doctor came back and scheduled a new appointment for the following month.

My husband and I got lucky. Our beautiful, imperfect embryo attached to the uterine wall, mesmerizing us with her wild beating heart at biweekly ultrasounds. As each week brought on fresh worries — that I could miscarry, that the baby might have other abnormalities not caught at embryo testing — I found comfort in Dr. Taylor’s words: “Mosaicism is more common than we think. Many of us are mosaic without knowing it.”

At three months, my doctor recommended a blood test that checked the baby’s DNA fragments in my blood to see if she was at risk for genetic abnormalities. At this point, my husband and I had begun to notice families in the dog park whose children had genetic disabilities. We quietly found acceptance that we would add variety to the families in our community and decided that we wouldn’t terminate the baby — no matter the result.

They came back as normal. But like embryo testing, the blood test couldn’t diagnose a fetus’s genetic condition with certainty. Our doctor offered a more accurate amniocentesis test, but we had already made our decision. I decided to leave it there.

Now, during ultrasounds, our daughter hides her face behind her hands or presses hard against the placenta, as if asking us to let her grow in privacy. The last time I glimpsed her full profile, at five months gestation, her nose, long and sharp, was prominent and unmistakable. I wondered if it was one of the characteristics of the extra 22nd chromosome or if she’d simply inherited my husband’s nose. As my due date draws nearer, her genetic profile is less of a concern. I’m thrilled we’ve made it this far.


Jacquelynn Kerubo is a writer and public health communicator.

After Genetic Testing, I Took a Chance on an ‘Imperfect’ Pregnancy

‘It was like rolling the dice, except for someone you’ve never met.’

My husband and I were sitting in an Upper East Side office with deep-toned velvet couches and fluffy throw pillows, surrounded by photos of smiling babies, as the fertility doctor gave his spiel. He told us that after age 35, a woman’s chances of getting pregnant drop. Older women produce few normal embryos even with fertility treatment. But we’d have a healthy baby in our arms within a year — if we tested the embryos.

By testing the chromosomes in my embryos, he said, we could weed out the abnormal embryos that may lead to miscarriage or a child with disabilities and only use viable ones.

I’ve always been a late bloomer — I met my husband at 37 and married at 39. I was in good health but pushing 40, with diminishing egg count and quality. After six months of trying to conceive on our own, we wanted all the help we could get. My husband and I jumped at the embryo testing suggestion.

After two long rounds of in vitro fertilization, we had five embryos, but the genetic testing deemed four of them “abnormal,” meaning they contained extra or missing chromosomes. Our fifth embryo, a girl, was what our genetic counselor called “mosaic,” meaning it had both abnormal and normal cells.

Starting in the late 1990s, doctors testing fertilized eggs classified them as normal or abnormal, then added the classification “mosaic” in 2015. Mosaic embryos can be either low- or high-level, depending on the number of abnormal cells. Twenty percent of tested embryos are mosaic.

Ours was a low-level mosaic embryo, with a few cells having an extra 22nd chromosome. Scientists are still trying to understand mosaicism, but this meant our embryo could be normal and lead to a healthy baby; she could have genetic abnormalities that would lead to miscarriage; or she could be born with congenital heart defects, asymmetrical development (meaning one side of her body could look like it was melting while the opposite side looked normal) or other disabilities that would cause her to use a wheelchair for life. It was like rolling the dice, except for someone you’ve never met.

It turns out there are a lot of online communities for mosaic kids and their families, including one on Facebook dedicated specifically to mosaics with an extra 22nd chromosome. Some adults lived normal lives and only find they have mosaic +22 later in life. Some women who were pregnant with babies with mosaic +22 miscarried. Children — ranging from newborns to young adults — had varying developmental challenges.

What scared me most was that in girls, the extra 22nd chromosome could cause infertility. I felt selfish for wanting her so desperately that I would allow her into the world without this same opportunity.

We had to make a fast choice: do a third cycle of I.V.F., hoping to get a normal embryo, or risk transferring the mosaic. Should we first try the mosaic embryo or risk having more nonviable embryos to agonize over? Because of the risks to the fetus and the developmental challenges our baby might face, the genetic counselor advised us to not transfer.

I had always hoped my future children wouldn’t be short like me. My husband, who sprouts freckles in the sun, hoped they would inherit my darker skin. Otherwise, we had no lofty dreams of them going to Harvard or making any “world’s most beautiful baby” list. We picked a dog that was the runt of the litter, with a lopsided face, because we thought she was modern art. But that’s a lot different from bringing a child into the world knowing it had a risk of living a difficult life.

It was a lot to take in. I wasn’t scared that my life would be curtailed if I brought up a child with special needs — I was ready to dedicate myself to a child. But I worried that my wanting a child was blinding me to some of my potential shortcomings. Was I capable of giving up everything to concentrate on this person who would need me in ways I couldn’t even fathom yet? I was terrified that I couldn’t handle having a child with special needs and would take it out on her.

I was also a little embarrassed that I cared so much about having a “perfect” baby that fit the standard 46-chromosome human body. Who was I to make this life and death decision for another human?

But it turns out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Because genetic tests of I.V.F. embryos are far from perfect.

“Labs only test five cells from around 150 that make up the fertilized egg,” said Dr. Hugh Taylor, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think we have full information on an embryo based on those few cells.”

A recently published study of 1,000 mosaic embryos found those that progressed into a late-term pregnancy and full term birth had similar odds of being born without any discernible genetic differences to a normal embryo. But there were no guarantees.

I didn’t want to try another I.V.F. cycle. In late February 2020, we decided to transfer the embryo into my uterus — just in time for New York City to shut down during the pandemic.

Five months later, I got a call from a physician who was filling in for my doctor; she canceled my appointment, claiming she was uncomfortable transferring a mosaic embryo. I was livid and overcome with grief.

“The larger question that emerges with embryo testing is who gets to take on the risk of possibly bringing a child with potential disabilities into the world,” Dr. Taylor said. “The decision should not be left to physicians. Patients should be given the freedom to decide, and properly counseled in cases where there are abnormalities that will inevitably lead to death.”

Parents I had met online described wheeling or driving their frozen abnormal and mosaic embryos in unwieldy metal tanks to other clinics when their physicians refused to transfer. Fortunately, my regular doctor came back and scheduled a new appointment for the following month.

My husband and I got lucky. Our beautiful, imperfect embryo attached to the uterine wall, mesmerizing us with her wild beating heart at biweekly ultrasounds. As each week brought on fresh worries — that I could miscarry, that the baby might have other abnormalities not caught at embryo testing — I found comfort in Dr. Taylor’s words: “Mosaicism is more common than we think. Many of us are mosaic without knowing it.”

At three months, my doctor recommended a blood test that checked the baby’s DNA fragments in my blood to see if she was at risk for genetic abnormalities. At this point, my husband and I had begun to notice families in the dog park whose children had genetic disabilities. We quietly found acceptance that we would add variety to the families in our community and decided that we wouldn’t terminate the baby — no matter the result.

They came back as normal. But like embryo testing, the blood test couldn’t diagnose a fetus’s genetic condition with certainty. Our doctor offered a more accurate amniocentesis test, but we had already made our decision. I decided to leave it there.

Now, during ultrasounds, our daughter hides her face behind her hands or presses hard against the placenta, as if asking us to let her grow in privacy. The last time I glimpsed her full profile, at five months gestation, her nose, long and sharp, was prominent and unmistakable. I wondered if it was one of the characteristics of the extra 22nd chromosome or if she’d simply inherited my husband’s nose. As my due date draws nearer, her genetic profile is less of a concern. I’m thrilled we’ve made it this far.


Jacquelynn Kerubo is a writer and public health communicator.

Coronavirus Reinfections Are Rare, Danish Researchers Report

People over 65 are more likely to experience a second bout with the virus, according to a large study of medical records.

The vast majority of people who recover from Covid-19 remain shielded from the virus for at least six months, researchers reported on Wednesday in a large study from Denmark.

Prior infection with the coronavirus reduced the chances of a second bout by about 80 percent in people under 65, but only by about half in those older than 65. But those results, published in the journal Lancet, were tempered by many caveats.

The number of infected older people in the study was small. The researchers did not have any information beyond the test results, so it’s possible that only people who were mildly ill the first time became infected again and that the second infections were largely symptom-free.

Scientists have said that reinfections are likely to be asymptomatic or mild because the immune system will suppress the virus before it can do much damage. The researchers also did not assess the possibility of reinfection with newer variants of the virus.

Still, the study suggests that immunity to a natural infection is unpredictable and uneven, and it underscores the importance of vaccinating everyone — especially older people, experts said.

“You can certainly not rely on a past infection as protecting you from being ill again, and possibly quite ill if you are in the elderly segment,” said Steen Ethelberg, an epidemiologist at Statens Serum Institut, Denmark’s public health agency.

Because people over 65 are at highest risk of severe disease and death, he said, “they are the ones we are most eager to protect.”

Rigorous estimates of second infections have generally been rare because many people worldwide did not initially have access to testing, and laboratories require genetic sequences from both rounds of testing to confirm a reinfection.

But the findings are consistent with those from experiments in a wide variety of settings: sailors on a fishing trawler in Seattle, Marine Corps recruits in South Carolina, health care workers in Britain and patients at clinics in the United States.

The new study’s design and size benefited from Denmark’s free and abundant testing for the coronavirus. Nearly 70 percent of the country’s population was tested for the virus in 2020.

The researchers looked at the results from 11,068 people who tested positive for the coronavirus during the first wave in Denmark between March and May 2020. During the second wave, from September to December, 72 of those people, or 0.65 percent, again tested positive, compared with 3.27 percent of people who became infected for the first time.

That translates to a 80 percent protection from the virus in those who had been infected before. The protection fell to 47 percent for those over 65. The team also analyzed test results from nearly 2.5 million people throughout the epidemic, some longer than seven months after the first infection, and found similar results.

“It was really nice to see that there was no difference in protection from reinfection over time,” said Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

She and other experts noted that while 80 percent might not seem superb, protection from symptomatic illness was likely to be higher. The analysis included anyone who was tested, regardless of symptoms.

“A lot of these will be asymptomatic infections, and a lot of these will likely be people who have a blip of virus,” noted Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Eighty percent risk reduction against asymptomatic infection is great.”

The findings indicate that people who have recovered from Covid-19 should get at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine to boost the level of protection, Dr. Krammer added. Most people produce robust immune response to a natural infection, “but there’s a lot of variability,” he said. Following vaccination, “we don’t see variability — we see very high responses in basically everybody, with very few exceptions.”

Experts were less convinced by the results in people over 65, saying the findings would have been more robust if the analysis had included more people from that age group.

“I wish it had actually been broken down into specific decades over 65,” Dr. Pepper said. “It would be nice to know whether the majority of people who were getting reinfected were over 80.”

The immune system grows progressively weaker with age, and people over 80 typically mount weak responses to infection with a virus. The lower protection in older people seen in the study is consistent with those observations, said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University.

“I think we kind of tend to forget how the vaccines have been pretty amazing in offering protection in this age group, because you can see that natural infection doesn’t confer the same kind of protection,” she said. “This really does emphasize the need to cover older people with the vaccine, even if they have had Covid first.”

Advanced Cancers Are Emerging, Doctors Warn, Citing Pandemic Drop in Screenings

People have skipped their cancer screenings and ignored possible symptoms as a result of the pandemic. In some cases, the delay has come at a great cost.

Yvette Lowery usually gets her annual mammogram around March. But last year, just as the pandemic was gaining a foothold and medical facilities were shutting down, the center where she goes canceled her appointment. No one could tell her when to reschedule.

“They just said keep calling back, keep calling back,” said Ms. Lowery, 59, who lives in Rock Hill, S.C.

In August, Ms. Lowery felt a lump under her arm but still couldn’t get an appointment until October.

Eventually, she received a diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer, started chemotherapy in November and had a double mastectomy this month.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of patients at an advanced stage,” said Dr. Kashyap B. Patel, one of Ms. Lowery’s doctors and the chief executive of Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates. If her cancer had been detected last May or June, it would have probably been caught before it had spread, Dr. Patel said.

Months of lockdowns and waves of surging Covid cases throughout last year shuttered clinics and testing labs, or reduced hours at other places, resulting in steep declines in the number of screenings, including for breast and colorectal cancers, experts have said.

Numerous studies showed that the number of patients screened or given a diagnosis of cancer fell during the early months of the pandemic. By mid-June, the rate of screenings for breast, colon and cervical cancers were still 29 percent to 36 percent lower than their prepandemic levels, according to an analysis of data by the Epic Health Research Network. Hundreds of thousands fewer screenings were performed last year than in 2019, according to the network data.

“We still haven’t caught up,” said Dr. Chris Mast, vice president of clinical informatics for Epic, which develops electronic health records for hospitals and clinics.

Another analysis of Medicare data suggested that as Covid cases spiked during certain periods in 2020, cancer screenings fell. The analysis — conducted by Avalere Health, a consulting firm, for Community Oncology Alliance, which represents independent cancer specialists — found that testing levels in November were about 25 percent lower than in 2019. The number of biopsies, used to diagnose cancer, decreased by about one-third.

While it is too early to assess the full impact of the delays in screenings, many cancer specialists say they are concerned that patients are coming in with more severe disease.

“There’s no question in practice that we are seeing patients with more advanced breast cancer and colorectal cancer,” said Dr. Lucio N. Gordan, the president of the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, one of the nation’s largest independent oncology groups. He is working on a study to see if, over all, these missed screenings resulted in more patients with later-stage cancers.

Yvette Lowery in Rock Hill, S.C. 
Yvette Lowery in Rock Hill, S.C. Travis Dove for The New York Times

And even though the numbers of mammograms and colonoscopies have rebounded in recent months, many people with cancer remain undiagnosed, doctors are reporting.

Some patients, like Ms. Lowery, could not easily get an appointment once clinics reopened because of pent-up demand. Others skipped regular testing or ignored worrisome symptoms because they were afraid of getting infected or after losing their jobs, they couldn’t afford the cost of a test.

“The fear of Covid was more tangible than the fear of missing a screen that detected cancer,” said Dr. Patrick I. Borgen, the chair of surgery at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn who also leads its breast center. His hospital treated such large numbers of coronavirus patients early on that “we’re now associated as the Covid hospital,” he said, and healthy people stayed away to avoid contagion.

Even patients at high risk because of their genetic makeup or because they previously had cancer have missed critical screenings. Dr. Ritu Salani, the director of gynecologic oncology at the UCLA Health Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center said one woman, who was at risk for colon cancer, had a negative test in 2019 but didn’t go for her usual screening last year because of the pandemic.

When she went to see her doctor, she had advanced cancer. “It’s just a devastating story,” Dr. Salani said. “Screening tests are really designed when patients aren’t feeling bad.”

Ryan Bellamy felt no hurry last spring to reschedule a canceled colonoscopy, even though the presence of blood in his stool had prompted him to look up symptoms. “I really didn’t want to go to the hospital,” Mr. Bellamy said. He decided it was unlikely he had cancer. “They’re not following up with me so I’m OK with Googling,” he told himself.

A resident of Palm Coast, Fla., Mr. Bellamy said that after his symptoms worsened, his wife insisted that he go for testing in December, and he had a colonoscopy in late January. With a new diagnosis of Stage 3 rectal cancer, Mr. Bellamy, 38, is undergoing radiation treatment and chemotherapy.

Colon screening remained significantly lower in 2020, declining about 15 percent from 2019 levels, according to the Epic network data, although overall screenings were down 6 percent. The analysis looked at screenings for more than 600 hospitals in 41 states.

Eric Prieto holding a picture of his family. His wife, Sandy Prieto, died after receiving a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.Salgu Wissmath for The New York Times

Lung cancer patients have also delayed seeking appropriate care, said Dr. Michael J. Liptay, chairman of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. One patient had imaging that showed a spot on his lung, and he was supposed to follow up, just as the pandemic hit. “Additional work-up and care was deferred,” Dr. Liptay said. By the time the patient was fully evaluated, the cancer had increased in size. “It wasn’t a good thing to wait 10 months,” Dr. Liptay said, although he was uncertain whether earlier treatment would have changed the patient’s prognosis.

Just as previous economic recessions led people to forgo medical care, the downturn in the economy during the pandemic has also discouraged many people from seeking help or treatment.

“We know cancers are out there,” said Dr. Barbara L. McAneny, the chief executive of New Mexico Oncology Hematology Consultants. Many of her patients are staying away, even if they have insurance, because they cannot afford the deductibles or co-payments. “We’re seeing that, particularly with our poorer folks who are living on the edge anyway, living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Some patients ignored their symptoms as long as they could. Last March, Sandy Prieto, a school librarian who lived in Fowler, Calif., had stomach pain. But she refused to go to the doctor because she didn’t want to get Covid. After having a telehealth visit with her primary care doctor, she tried over-the-counter medications, but they didn’t help with the pain and nausea. She continued to decline.

“It got to the point where we didn’t have a choice,” said her husband, Eric, who had repeatedly urged her to go to the doctor. Jaundiced and in severe discomfort, she went to the emergency room at the end of May and was given a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She died in September.

“If it wasn’t for Covid and we could have gotten her some place earlier, she would still be with us today,” said her sister, Carolann Meme, who had tried to persuade Ms. Prieto to go to an academic medical center where she might have gotten into a clinical trial.

Mr. Prieto, left, with his son, Ethan, outside their home in Fowler, Calif. He repeatedly urged his wife to seek treatment.Salgu Wissmath for The New York Times

When patients like Ms. Prieto are not seen in person but treated virtually, doctors may easily miss important symptoms or recommend medication rather than tell them to come in, said Dr. Ravi D. Rao, the oncologist who treated Ms. Prieto. Patients may downplay how sick they feel or neglect to mention the pain in their hip, he said.

“In my mind, telemedicine and cancer don’t travel together,” Dr. Rao said. While he also made use of telemedicine during the height of the pandemic, he says he worked to keep his offices open.

Other doctors defended the use of virtual visits as a critical tool when office visits were too hazardous for most patients and staff. “We were grateful to have a robust telemedicine effort when people simply couldn’t come into the center,” said Dr. Borgen of Maimonides. But he acknowledged that patients were frequently reluctant to discuss their symptoms during a telehealth session, especially a mother whose young children could be listening to what they were saying. “It’s not private,” he noted.

Some health networks say they took aggressive steps to try to counteract the effects of the pandemic. During the initial stay-at-home order last year, Kaiser Permanente, the large California-based managed care outfit, spotted a declining number of breast cancer screenings and diagnoses in the northern part of the state. “Doctors immediately got together” to begin contacting patients, said Dr. Tatjana Kolevska, medical director for the Kaiser Permanente National Cancer Excellence Program.

Kaiser also relies on its electronic health records to make appointments for women who are overdue for their mammograms when they book an appointment with their primary care doctor or even want to get a prescription for new glasses.

While Dr. Kolevska says she is waiting to see data for the system as a whole, she has been encouraged by the number of patients in her practice who are now up to date with their mammograms.

“All of those things put in place have helped tremendously,” she said.

Lung Cancer Scans Are Recommended for People 50 and Older With Shorter Smoking Histories

Yearly Lung Cancer Scans Are Advised for People 50 and Over With Shorter Smoking Histories

New advice from an influential panel will make more women and African-Americans eligible for CT scans, but some who need them most may not be able to afford them.

A computed tomography scan of the lungs of a healthy adult man. The panel recommended low-dose CT scans, so-called because they involve a relatively small amount of radiation, and cost about $300.
A computed tomography scan of the lungs of a healthy adult man. The panel recommended low-dose CT scans, so-called because they involve a relatively small amount of radiation, and cost about $300.Credit…Alamy Stock Photo

  • March 9, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ET

New guidelines from medical experts will nearly double the number of people in the United States who are advised to have yearly CT scans to screen for lung cancer, and will include many more African-Americans and women than in the past.

The disease is the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, and the goal of the expanded screening is to find it early enough to cure it in more people at high risk because of smoking. In those individuals, annual CT scans can reduce the risk of death from the cancer by 20 to 25 percent, large studies have found.

The new recommendations, by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, include people ages 50 to 80 who have smoked at least a pack a day for 20 years or more, and who still smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.

The advice, published on Tuesday in the medical journal JAMA, differs in two major ways from the task force’s previous guidelines, issued in 2013: It lowers the age when screening should start, to 50 from 55, and it reduces the smoking history to 20 years, from 30.

Those changes will add more women and African-Americans to the pool eligible for screening, because they tend to smoke less heavily than the white male study participants on whom earlier guidelines were based. Women and Black Americans also tend to develop lung cancer earlier and from less tobacco exposure than do white men, experts said.

Why the risk appears to differ by race and gender is not known.

“Some studies have alluded to some hormonal influences in women,” Dr. Mara Antonoff, a lung surgeon at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said in an interview. “In terms of racial differences, we don’t have an answer. We have population-based data to show they have a tendency to develop lung cancer younger and with less exposure to tobacco, but we don’t have a mechanism.”

Under the new criteria, 14.5 million people in the United States will qualify for the screening, an increase of 6.4 million.

The task force includes 16 physicians, scientists and public health experts who periodically evaluate screening tests and preventive treatments. Members are appointed by the director of the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, but the group is independent and its recommendations often help shape U.S. medical practice.

The use of chest X-rays to detect lung cancer was largely abandoned decades ago because they could not find the disease early enough to be useful.

The CT scans, called low-dose CT — because they involve a relatively small amount of radiation — cost about $300. Patients are advised to stop the screening once they have not smoked for 15 years, or if they develop health problems that would substantially shorten their life expectancy or make them unable to have lung surgery if needed.

Patients have not flocked to clinics for this screening. Researchers estimate that only 6 to 18 percent of those who qualify and could be helped by the screening have taken advantage of it. Some cannot afford it.

“Part of the low uptake is simply lack of access to care,” said Dr. Robert Smith, a screening expert at the American Cancer Society. “Smoking in general is increasingly concentrated in lower-income populations.”

The Affordable Care Act does require that insurers cover any screening broadly recommended by the task force, with no out-of-pocket costs.

Bettye Givens, right, of south Kansas City, reviewing lung scans with her doctor in 2017. She received a low-dose CT scan that detected her lung cancer at its earliest stage and was successfully treated.
Bettye Givens, right, of south Kansas City, reviewing lung scans with her doctor in 2017. She received a low-dose CT scan that detected her lung cancer at its earliest stage and was successfully treated.Credit…Andy Marso/Kansas City Star/TNS/Alamy Live News

But researchers have found that half the population eligible for lung-cancer screening had either no insurance, or Medicaid, Dr. Smith said. Not all Medicaid plans have covered the screening, according to an editorial in JAMA.

“There could be a 15-year period when you might quality for screening and not have any insurance,” Dr. Smith said.

He and other researchers also said that patients may be missing out on lung-cancer screening because they just don’t know about it. It has not received as much attention as other cancer screenings, like mammograms, colonoscopies and Pap tests. Some doctors may not encourage it as strongly, and especially with former smokers, may not take the time to calculate a patient’s smoking history to see if it matches the guidelines.

The changes in the criteria for smoking history and screening age were based on new data from multiple studies, Dr. Alex H. Krist, the task force chairman and a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an interview.

“Lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in America,” Dr. Krist said, adding that with the new data, “we have even more confidence that screening does save lives.”

Like other kinds of screenings affected by the pandemic, those for lung cancer remain below 2019 levels, according to an analysis of Medicare data by Avalere Health, a consulting firm, conducted for Community Oncology Alliance, which represents independent cancer specialists.

While the number of screenings had started to rebound in the summer, the fresh spike in Covid cases later in the year caused them to fall again. In November, screenings were down by 30 percent, compared to 2019, and the number of lung biopsies had also dropped, indicating cases were not being diagnosed.

Using its own grading system, the task force gave its recommendation a B, saying there was “moderate certainty” that annual screening was of “moderate net benefit.”

That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, given that a grade of A means “high certainty that the net benefit is substantial.” But anything with an A or B grade should be offered to patients, according to task force rules.

“There is building evidence that a pretty simple, five-minute, low-dose, low radiation scan can really save a lot of people’s lives,” said Dr. Bernard J. Park, a lung surgeon and the clinical director of the lung-screening service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. About 75 to 85 percent of the cancers found with this screening are Stage 1, and curable with just surgery or radiation, he estimated.

Dr. Park said that many people who signed up for the screening had quit smoking or were trying to stop, but that a few regarded clear scans as a sign that they could keep smoking.

Dr. Smith said that the American Cancer Society was due to revise its own guidelines for lung-cancer screening, and that its advice would probably be similar to that of the task force.

In 2013, the American Academy of Family Physicians declined to recommend for or against CT screening for lung cancer, saying there was insufficient evidence. But the president, Dr. Ada Stewart, said in an emailed statement on Monday that the academy would review the new task force evidence and decide whether to update its own recommendation to its members.

There were 228,820 new cases of lung cancer in the United States in 2020, and 135,720 people died from it, according to the National Cancer Institute. About 90 percent of cases occur in people who smoke, and current smokers’ risk of developing the disease is about 20 times that of nonsmokers.

Only about 20.5 percent of patients survive five years after the diagnosis. Most cases are diagnosed late, after the cancer has begun to spread. But if it can be found and treated early, cure is possible, doctors say.

CT screening has risks, and doctors say those must be explained to patients, who may decide to decline the testing. The scans detect tiny nodules in the lungs that may be early cancers — or maybe not. A suspicious-looking spot could be just a minor infection, inflammation or a benign growth, Dr. Park said.

Often, the nodules can just be monitored with repeat scans, but it can be nerve-racking for patients to spend months waiting for the next test, knowing there is something in their lung that might be malignant.

False positive rates, when something harmless is mistaken for cancer, have ranged from 3.9 to 25 percent and higher in studies, but tend to decrease over time, as the patient has more annual scans.

A major concern about false positives is that they can lead to invasive procedures like lung biopsies. One large study found that invasive procedures were performed needlessly in 1.7 percent of the patients who were screened. The task force report said that standards created by radiology societies for evaluating the scans could help to prevent some unnecessary procedures spurred by false positives.

Another possible risk from screening is the chance that the cumulative radiation exposure could cause cancer. But the dose is low, and the risk is thought to be small, especially when compared with the risk of lung cancer caused by smoking.

In theory, screening could also lead to unneeded invasive tests and treatment for a cancer that would not have progressed or harmed the patient. How often that might occur is not known, but it is considered rare.

Reed Abelson contributed to this article.

At-Home Covid Testing Is Here

At-Home Covid Testing Is Here

But does it work?

Credit…Rose Wong

  • Feb. 26, 2021, 12:44 p.m. ET

In case you missed it: You can now get tested for the coronavirus in the comfort of your own home.

This is great news, especially for people who don’t have access to a testing site. Currently, these portable tests come in two flavors. The first is test-by-mail kits, which allow patients to swab their noses at home and mail them to a laboratory for a result in a day or two. The other types are called at-home tests, which give an answer on the spot.

Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration has authorized dozens of test-by-mail kits, and three at-home tests.

These tests are not nearly as accurate as those taken in a clinic, but experts say coronavirus tests that can be done at home play an important role as the country continues to reopen. “They get actionable information in people’s hands quickly,” said Jennifer Bacci, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy.

Of course, no coronavirus diagnostic test is 100 percent accurate. Even the gold-standard nasopharyngeal swab, given at many clinics, can return a negative result even though you might be carrying the coronavirus. And these tests only inform you about a single point in time. But even if home tests may be less accurate, they can quickly alert people if they test positive.

Certainly the market for home test kits will likely grow, said Gigi Gronvall, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. But with more options, consumers will need to learn what test is best for them.

Here are some key questions to consider when deciding on an at-home testing kit.

What are the trade-offs between mail-in kits and fully at-home tests?

Test-by-mail kits require users to purchase a kit, take a sample at home and ship the swab back to a lab. These kits take more processing time and use a method called polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., to detect coronavirus.

P.C.R. works by identifying and magnifying specific gene sequences. “It can take a very small signal and amplify it,” to detect smaller amounts of the virus, said Dr. Gronvall. These tests are highly sensitive, picking up positive cases nearly all the time (accuracy varies by lab, and false negatives can be as high as 20 percent). “A negative P.C.R. isn’t perfect, but it gives a high degree of assurance,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Fully at-home tests, such as those made by Ellume and Abbott, require users to swab their noses and drop the swabs in a liquid. The tests provide an answer in as little as 15 minutes for the Abbott test and 20 minutes for Ellume.

These tests look for antigens — parts of microbes that cause an immune response. Unlike P.C.R., antigen tests do not amplify signals, which makes them faster but less accurate. These rapid antigen tests, Dr. Gronvall said, are good for measuring how contagious you are. “If you test positive on that, you really need to isolate,” she said, and get a clinical swab done to confirm the results.

False negatives, however, are much more common with antigen tests, meaning infected people might think they are virus free, especially if they are not having symptoms.

“The sensitivity of these tests tend to be pretty bad,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine. If users have symptoms, the BinaxNOW antigen test has a 64 percent chance of correctly spotting the virus (and about half that in those without symptoms). Accuracy for some antigen tests in asymptomatic individuals can be less than 50 percent — worse than flipping a coin, she said.

Remember, any test’s ability to detect coronavirus depends on how much virus is in the location of your body where you are taking a sample. Tests taken early, say, hours after a potential virus exposure, have a higher chance of being a false negative.

What home test should you use?

If you’re asymptomatic, you may have a smaller amount of virus in your body. In this case, experts said that your best bet for an accurate test is to use a test-by-mail kit because P.C.R. will be able to amplify lower levels of virus.

If you have symptoms, either a P.C.R.-based test or an antigen test will likely be able to confirm you have it. When choosing an antigen test, Dr. Jha said to look for whichever option at your disposal has the highest sensitivity, which refers to a test’s ability to detect the virus. Look for a sensitivity rating from 95 to 99 percent, he said.

Turnaround time is also important. Antigen tests are less accurate but offer an answer much faster without having to mail a sample. Results of either test should always be confirmed by a clinical test, said Dr. Maldonado.

Costs, too, may play a factor. Test-by-mail kits can cost $100 or more and may not be reimbursed by insurance companies. “Many patients have encountered unanticipated bills or red tape when seeking reimbursement for mail-in coronavirus testing, even though insurance companies are obligated to do so,” said Dr. Marisa Cruz, head of clinical affairs at Everlywell, a company that makes at-home health tests, including one for coronavirus.

Antigen tests, on the other hand, are a fraction of the cost, currently ranging from $25 to $50.

What should you check for on the box?

Make sure the home test or collection kit you’re looking to buy has an emergency use authorization from the F.D.A. (it will be printed on the box) and that the company works with certified lab partners. Also look for tests that offer a telemedicine consult, advised Dr. Cruz, so you can discuss your diagnosis and next steps.

How should I interpret a result from an at-home coronavirus test?

Following the test kit instructions is key to getting a reliable result. “A specimen that is not collected correctly may lead to false negative test results,” said Dr. Cruz. Imperfect swabbing technique, or swabbing only one nostril, may increase the risk of less accurate results. And samples for test-by-mail kits should be shipped the same day they are collected; the less time in transit, the better. Samples sent on weekends or holidays may be delayed, though some use FedEx and overnight shipping.

If you test positive on either a mail-in P.C.R. or at-home antigen test, you are likely to be infected and presumed contagious, said Dr. Bacci, so isolate from others and continue to monitor your symptoms. Repeat testing can help track the disease course, if, say, someone goes from being asymptomatic to displaying symptoms.

Negative results are more likely to be wrong than positive ones. “A negative result does not necessarily mean you do not have Covid, which is the same interpretation for either an at-home test, a mail-in test or one offered in a doctor’s office,” said Dr. Cruz. Continue to wear masks, socially distance and practice good hygiene, especially if you have symptoms or known contacts with others with Covid.

When would a test be inappropriate to use?

Dr. Gronvall is concerned that some people are using at-home tests after they’ve been vaccinated to make sure that the vaccine has worked. But neither the P.C.R. or antigen-based tests will be able to discern whether the vaccines have built up immunity in your body.

That’s because the vaccines encode for snippets of the virus and not the entire sequence. The P.C.R. and antigen tests search for a different portion of the virus from what’s included in the vaccines.

“These tests are not going to tell people if the vaccine is effective,” she said.

What does the future of at-home testing look like?

Beyond saliva and nasal swabs, some scientists are looking to develop devices that look like breathalyzers to detect chemicals in an individual’s breath that correspond to coronavirus infection. “We’re looking for the body’s response to infection and disease,” said Pelagia-Iren Gouma, a materials engineer at The Ohio State University.

Dr. Gouma and her colleagues are testing a small breathalyzer they have developed that can be used for up to one year and would cost perhaps a few dollars per device. Users would get an answer in 15 seconds, and the test appears to be accurate 96 percent of the time and can be reused, Dr. Gouma said. The device was submitted to the F.D.A. and has been awaiting emergency use authorization since September.

Experts hope that as the market for at-home testing expands, the options will grow and become cheaper. The cheaper the tests are, the more likely the government will subsidize them and consumers will buy them for routine testing. And the more testing, the better. As the world slowly reopens, home-based tests will help people make better decisions.


Wudan Yan is a journalist based in Seattle, Wash., writing about science and society.

How Meaningful Is Prediabetes for Older Adults?

the new old age

How Meaningful Is Prediabetes for Older Adults?

A new study indicates that the condition might be less of a worry than once believed.

Susan Glickman Weinberg, of Encino, Calif., was told a few years ago during routine tests that she was prediabetic, a diagnosis that puzzled her. “I felt like Patient Zero,” she said. “There were a lot of unknowns.”
Susan Glickman Weinberg, of Encino, Calif., was told a few years ago during routine tests that she was prediabetic, a diagnosis that puzzled her. “I felt like Patient Zero,” she said. “There were a lot of unknowns.”Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

  • Feb. 23, 2021, 2:30 a.m. ET

A few years ago, routine lab tests showed that Susan Glickman Weinberg, then a 65-year-old clinical social worker in Los Angeles, had a hemoglobin A1C reading of 5.8 percent, barely above normal.

“This is considered prediabetes,” her internist told her. A1C measures how much sugar has been circulating in the bloodstream over time. If her results reached 6 percent — still below the number that defines diabetes, which is 6.5 — her doctor said he would recommend the widely prescribed drug metformin.

“The thought that maybe I’d get diabetes was very upsetting,” recalled Ms. Weinberg, who as a child had heard relatives talking about it as “this mysterious terrible thing.”

She was already taking two blood pressure medications, a statin for cholesterol and an osteoporosis drug. Did she really need another prescription? She worried, too, about reports at the time of tainted imported drugs. She wasn’t even sure what prediabetes meant, or how quickly it might become diabetes.

“I felt like Patient Zero,” she said. “There were a lot of unknowns.”

Now, there are fewer unknowns. A longitudinal study of older adults, published online this month in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, provides some answers about the very common in-between condition known as prediabetes.

The researchers found that over several years, older people who were supposedly prediabetic were far more likely to have their blood sugar levels return to normal than to progress to diabetes. And they were no more likely to die during the follow-up period than their peers with normal blood sugar.

“In most older adults, prediabetes probably shouldn’t be a priority,” said Elizabeth Selvin, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and the senior author on the study.

Prediabetes, a condition rarely discussed as recently as 15 years ago, refers to a blood sugar level that is higher than normal but that has not crossed the threshold into diabetes. It is commonly defined by a hemoglobin A1C reading of 5.7 to 6.4 percent or a fasting glucose level of 100 to 125 mg/dL; in midlife, it can portend serious health problems.

A diagnosis of prediabetes means that you are more likely to develop diabetes, and “that leads to downstream illness,” said Dr. Kenneth Lam, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, and an author of an editorial accompanying the study. “It damages your kidneys, your eyes and your nerves. It causes heart attack and stroke,” he said.

But for an older adult just edging into higher blood sugar levels, it’s a different story. Those fearful consequences take years to develop, and many people in their 70s and 80s will not live long enough to encounter them.

That fact has generated years of debate. Should older people with slightly above-normal blood sugar readings — a frequent occurrence since the pancreas produces less insulin in later life — be taking action, as the American Diabetes Association has urged?

Or does labeling people prediabetic merely “medicalize” a normal part of aging, creating needless anxiety for those already coping with multiple health problems?

Dr. Selvin and her colleagues analyzed the findings of an ongoing national study of cardiovascular risk that began in the 1980s. When 3,412 of the participants showed up for their physicals and lab tests between 2011 and 2013, they had reached ages 71 to 90 and did not have diabetes.

Prediabetes, however, was rampant. Almost three-quarters qualified as prediabetic, based on either their A1C or fasting blood glucose levels.

These findings mirrored a 2016 study pointing out that a popular online risk test created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Diabetes Association, called doihaveprediabetes.org, would deem nearly everyone over 60 as prediabetic.

In 2010, a C.D.C. review reported that 9 to 25 percent of those with an A1C of 5.5 to 6 percent will develop diabetes over five years; so will 25 to 50 percent of those with A1C readings of 6 to 6.5. But those estimates were based on a middle-aged population.

When Dr. Selvin and her team looked at what had actually happened to their older prediabetic cohort five to six years later, only 8 or 9 percent had developed diabetes, depending on the definition used.

A much larger group — 13 percent of those whose A1C level was elevated and 44 percent of those with prediabetic fasting blood glucose — actually saw their readings revert to normal blood sugar levels. (A Swedish study found similar results.)

Sixteen to 19 percent had died, about the same proportion as those without prediabetes.

“We’re not seeing much risk in these individuals,” Dr. Selvin said. “Older adults can have complex health issues. Those that impair quality of life should be the focus, not mildly elevated blood glucose.”

Carol Jacobi, a friend of Ms. Weinberg’s, received a similar diagnosis at around the same time, but did nothing much to reduce her blood sugar.
Carol Jacobi, a friend of Ms. Weinberg’s, received a similar diagnosis at around the same time, but did nothing much to reduce her blood sugar.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Dr. Saeid Shahraz, a health researcher at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and lead author of the 2016 study, praised the new research. “The data is really strong,” he said. “The American Diabetes Association should do something about this.”

It may, said Dr. Robert Gabbay, the A.D.A.’s chief scientific and medical officer. The organization currently recommends “at least annual monitoring” for people with prediabetes, a referral to the lifestyle modification programs shown to decrease health risks and perhaps metformin for those who are obese and under 60.

Now the association’s Professional Practice Committee will review the study, and “it could lead to some adjustments in the way we think about things,” Dr. Gabbay said. Among older people considered prediabetic, “their risk may be smaller than we thought,” he added.

Defenders of the emphasis on treating prediabetes, which is said to afflict one-third of the United States population, point out that first-line treatment involves learning healthy behaviors that more Americans should adopt anyway: weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise and healthy eating.

“I’ve had a number of patients diagnosed with prediabetes, and it’s what motivates them to change,” Dr. Gabbay said. “They know what they should be doing, but they need something to kick them into gear.”

Geriatricians tend to disagree. “It’s unprofessional to mislead people, to motivate them by fear of something that’s not actually true,” Dr. Lam said. “We’re all tired of having things to be afraid of.”

He and Dr. Sei Lee, a coauthor of the editorial accompanying the new study and a fellow geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, argue for a case-by-case approach in older adults — especially if a diagnosis of prediabetes will cause their children to berate them over every cookie.

For a patient who is frail and vulnerable, “you’re likely dealing with a host of other problems,” Dr. Lam said. “Don’t worry about this number.”

A very healthy 75-year-old who could live 20 more years faces a more nuanced decision. She may never progress to diabetes; she may also already follow the recommended lifestyle modifications.

Ms. Weinberg, now 69, sought help from a nutritionist, changed her diet to emphasize complex carbohydrates and protein, and began walking more and climbing stairs instead of taking elevators. She shed 10 pounds she didn’t need to lose. Over 18 months, her barely elevated A1C reading fell to 5.6.

Her friend Carol Jacobi, 71, who also lives in Los Angeles, got a similar warning at about the same time. Her A1C was 5.7, the lowest number defined as prediabetic, but her internist immediately prescribed metformin.

Ms. Jacobi, a retired fund-raiser with no family history of diabetes, felt unconcerned. She figured she could lose a little weight, but she had normal blood pressure and an active life that included lots of walking and yoga. After trying the drug for a few months, she stopped.

Now, neither woman has prediabetes. Although Ms. Jacobi did nothing much to reduce her blood sugar, and has gained a few pounds during the pandemic, her A1C has fallen to normal levels, too.

C.D.C. Announces $200 Million ‘Down Payment’ to Track Virus Variants

C.D.C. Announces $200 Million ‘Down Payment’ to Track Virus Variants

Scientists say the new investment will help in the next couple of months, but hope that the stimulus package will provide much more.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, speaking in December. Dr. Walensky laid out an ambitious program on Wednesday to track the numerous coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, speaking in December. Dr. Walensky laid out an ambitious program on Wednesday to track the numerous coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
  • Feb. 17, 2021, 4:57 p.m. ET

As lawmakers push for billions of dollars to fund the nation’s efforts to track coronavirus variants, the Biden administration announced on Wednesday a new effort to ramp up this work, pledging nearly $200 million to better identify the emerging threats.

Calling it a “down payment,” the White House said that the investment would result in a significant increase in the number of positive virus samples that labs could sequence. Public health laboratories, universities and programs run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sequenced more than 9,000 genomes last week, according to the database GISAID. The agency hopes to increase its own contribution to 25,000 genomes a week.

“When we will get to 25,000 depends on the resources that we have at our fingertips and how quickly we can mobilize our partners,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “I don’t think this is going to be a light switch. I think it’s going to be a dial.”

The program is the administration’s most significant effort to date to address the looming danger of more contagious variants of the virus. A concerning variant first identified in Britain has infected at least 1,277 people in 42 states, although scientists suspect the true number is vastly higher.

Doubling about every 10 days, the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in Britain threatens to slow or reverse the rapid drop of new coronavirus cases. What’s more, Dr. Walensky said that the nation had seen its first case of B.1.1.7 that had gained a particularly worrying mutation that has been shown in South Africa to blunt the effectiveness of vaccines.

Other worrisome variants have also cropped up in the United States, including one that was first found in South Africa and weakens vaccines.

The F.D.A. is preparing for a potential redesign of vaccines to better protect against the new variants, but those efforts will take months. In the short term, experts say, it is critical to increase sequencing efforts, which are too small and uncoordinated to adequately track where variants are spreading, and how quickly.

Scientists welcomed the new plans from the Biden administration. “It’s a huge step in the right direction,” said Bronwyn MacInnis, a geneticist at the Broad Institute.

Dr. MacInnis said that the “minimal gold standard” would be sequencing 5 percent of virus samples. If cases continue to fall, then 25,000 genomes a week would put the country near that threshold, she said, which is “where we need to be to be detecting not only known threats, but emerging threats.”

Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said there had been “substantial gains” in national sequencing efforts since December. Still, he said that the C.D.C. would also need to make improvements in gathering data about the genomes —such as tieing it to information from contact tracing — and then supporting the large-scale analysis on computers required to quickly make sense of it all.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, has pushed for more federal funding for variant detection.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, has pushed for more federal funding for variant detection.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

“There’s too much of a focus on the raw count that we’re sequencing, rather than turnaround time,” he said.

White House officials cast the sequencing ramp-up as part of a broader effort to test more Americans for the virus. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department on Wednesday announced substantial new investments in testing, including $650 million for elementary and middle schools and “underserved congregate settings,” like homeless shelters. The two departments are also investing $815 million to speed the manufacturing of testing supplies.

The C.D.C.’s $200 million sequencing investment is dwarfed by a program proposed by some lawmakers as part of an economic relief package that Democratic congressional leaders aim to pass before mid-March. Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, introduced legislation to enhance its sequencing efforts. House lawmakers have allocated $1.75 billion to the effort.

In an interview, Ms. Baldwin suggested that the government should be aiming to sequence 15 percent of positive virus samples, a goal far beyond what researchers believe is possible in the near term.

“This is intended to create the basis of a permanent infrastructure that would allow us not only to do surveillance for Covid-19, to be on the leading edge of discovering new variants, but also we’d have that capacity for other diseases,” she said of her proposal. “There’s significant gaps in our knowledge.”

Since 2014, the C.D.C.’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection has used genome sequencing to track diseases like influenza, H.I.V. and food-borne diseases. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States, the C.D.C. was slow to adapt these tools to track the coronavirus. For weeks it struggled simply to establish a test for Covid.

In contrast, Britain started a widely praised sequencing program last March, taking advantage of its nationalized health care system with a central genomics lab. It now sequences up to 10 percent of all positive Covid tests and delivers deep, rapid analysis of the results.

The C.D.C. began ramping up surveillance efforts over the course of 2020, helping academic labs, commercial sequencing companies and public health departments to collaborate and share insights. In November, it invested in a program of its own, called NS3, to analyze coronavirus genomes. Every other week, the agency asks state health departments to send at least 10 samples to its lab for sequencing.

In December, it became clear those efforts would not be enough. Researchers in Britain found a new variant, called B.1.1.7, that was up to 50 percent more transmissible than other variants. Scientists now suspect it is also probably more lethal. In South Africa, another variant called B.1.351 proved not only more contagious, but less vulnerable to several vaccines.

C.D.C. officials began to fear B.1.1.7 had already been spreading widely in the United States, according to one senior federal health official. They began setting up new efforts, including contracts with lab testing companies that were running Covid tests.

Lab technicians Angelica Garces, left, and Sarah Clarke, right, prepared to load human RNA samples into a sequencing machine at Duke University earlier this month.Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Dr. Gregory Armstrong, the director of the Advanced Molecular Detection Program, said in an interview that his team came to the conclusion in January that sequencing from 5,000 to 10,000 samples a week would be a good short-term target.

“It’s the starting point,” Dr. Armstrong said. “The more we sequence above that, the more quickly we’ll be able to pick up these variants.”

At a White House news conference later that month, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, acknowledged how difficult reaching that goal would be.

“We are 43rd in the world in genomic sequencing — totally unacceptable,” he said, citing December data from the GISAID database. In a subsequent interview, he corrected himself, saying that the U.S. was behind 31 other nations.

In the early days of the administration, Dr. Walensky spoke of an initial goal for the C.D.C. of sequencing 7,000 genomes a month. Since then, the labs have not come close to that figure.

The agency’s National Genomic Surveillance Dashboard showed that they logged just 96 genomes in the week of Feb. 6. The following week, the figure rose to 1,382 genomes. Dr. Walensky’s new target of 25,000 genomes a week will require a significant increase.

Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said putting $200 million quickly into monitoring variants was a welcome development in advance of what she hoped would be longer-term improvements. “Time is of the essence,” she said. “An initial investment to expand genomic surveillance while the supplemental funding package comes together is a smart move.”

But she warned that the plan won’t be able to spring instantly into action. It may take a month just to get the basic improvements in place. By then, B.1.1.7 may already dominate U.S. cases and could jeopardize the current decline.

The larger program in the stimulus package will be crucial to managing the pandemic in the long run, Dr. Rivers said.

“We may not be able to get very far as relates to B.1.1.7, but what’s the next one, three months from now, or six months, or next winter?” she asked. “It’s not always just the thing in front of you. It’s what’s coming around the corner.”

How Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

Scientists want to build a weather system for viruses. It would require a big financial investment, plus buy-in from doctors, hospitals and blood banks.

Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

  • Feb. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Back in the summer, Dr. Michael Mina made a deal with a cold storage company. With many of its restaurant clients closed down, the firm had freezers to spare. And Dr. Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, had a half-million vials of plasma from human blood coming to his lab from across the country, samples dating back to the carefree days of January 2020.

The vials, now in three hulking freezers outside Dr. Mina’s lab, are at the center of a pilot project for what he and his collaborators call the Global Immunological Observatory. They envision an immense surveillance system that can check blood from all over the world for the presence of antibodies to hundreds of viruses at once. That way, when the next pandemic washes over us, scientists will have detailed, real-time information on how many people have been infected by the virus and how their bodies responded.

It might even offer some early notice, like a tornado warning. Although this monitoring system will not be able to detect new viruses or variants directly, it could show when large numbers of people start acquiring immunity to a particular kind of virus.

The human immune system keeps a record of pathogens it has met before, in the form of antibodies that fight against them and then stick around for life. By testing for these antibodies, scientists can get a snapshot of which flu viruses you have had, what that rhinovirus was that breezed through you last fall, even whether you had a respiratory syncytial virus as a child. Even if an infection never made you sick, it would still be picked up by this diagnostic method, called serological testing.

“We’re all like little recorders,” keeping track of viruses without realizing it, Dr. Mina said.

Spotting Patterns

This type of readout from the immune system is different from a test that looks for an active viral infection. The immune system starts to produce antibodies one to two weeks after an infection begins, so serology is retrospective, looking back at what you have caught. Also, closely related viruses may produce similar responses, provoking antibodies that bind to the same kinds of viral proteins. That means carefully designed assays are needed to distinguish between different coronaviruses, for example.

But serology uncovers things that virus testing does not, said Derek Cummings, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. With a large database of samples and clinical details, scientists can begin to see patterns emerge in how the immune system responds in someone with no symptoms compared to someone struggling to clear the virus. Serology can also reveal before an outbreak starts whether a population has robust immunity to a given virus, or if it is dangerously low.

“You want to understand what has happened in a population, and how prepared that population is for future attacks of a particular pathogen,” Dr. Cummings said.

The approach could also detect events in the viral ecosystem that otherwise go unnoticed, Dr. Cummings said. For example, the 2015 Zika outbreak was detected by doctors in Brazil who noticed a cluster of babies with abnormally small heads, born seven to nine months after their mothers were infected. “A serological observatory could conceivably have picked this up before then,” he said.

Freezers containing a half-million vials of plasma outside Dr. Mina’s lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Freezers containing a half-million vials of plasma outside Dr. Mina’s lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Serological surveys are often small and difficult to set up, since they require drawing blood from volunteers. But for several years Dr. Mina and his colleagues have been discussing the idea of a large and automated surveillance system using leftover samples from routine lab tests.

“Had we had it set up in 2019, then when this virus hit the U.S., we would have had ready access to data that would have allowed us to see it circulating in New York City, for example, without doing anything different,” Dr. Mina said.

Although the observatory would not have been able to identify the new coronavirus, it would have revealed an unusually high number of infections from the coronavirus family, which includes those that cause common colds. It might also have shown that the new coronavirus was interacting with patients’ immune systems in unexpected ways, resulting in telltale markers in the blood. That would have been a signal to start genetic sequencing of patient samples, to identify the culprit, and might have provided grounds to shut down the city earlier, Dr. Mina said. (Similarly, serology would not be able to spot the emergency of a new virus variant, like the contagious coronavirus variants that were discovered in South Africa and England before spreading elsewhere. For that, researchers must rely on standard genomic sequencing of virus test samples.)

A Powerful Investment

The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks and other sources of blood, as well as a system for acquiring consent from patients and donors. It also faces the problem of financing, noted Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington. Health insurance companies would be unlikely to foot the bill, since serology tests are usually not used by doctors to treat people.

Dr. Mina estimated that the observatory would cost about $100 million to get off the ground. He pointed out that, according to his calculations, the federal government has allocated more than twice that much to diagnostics company Ellume to produce enough rapid Covid tests to cover the American demand for only a handful of days. A pathogen observatory, he said, is like a weather forecasting system that draws on vast numbers of buoys and sensors around the globe, passively reporting on events where and when they arise. These systems have been funded by government grants and are widely valued.

The predictive power of serology is worth the investment, said Jessica Metcalf, an epidemiologist at Princeton and one of the observatory team members. A few years ago, she and her collaborators found in a smaller survey that immunity to measles was ominously low in Madagascar. Indeed, in 2018 an outbreak took hold, killing more than 10,000 children.

Now, the half-million plasma samples in Dr. Mina’s freezers, collected by the plasma donation company Octopharma from sites across the country last year, are starting to undergo serological tests focused on the new coronavirus, funded by a $2 million grant from Open Philanthropy. Testing had to wait for the researchers to set up a new robotic testing facility and process the samples, but now they are working through their first batches.

The team hopes to use this data to show how the virus flowed into the United States, week by week, and how immunity to Covid has grown and changed. They also hope it will spark interest in using serology to illuminate the movement of many more viruses.

“The big idea is to show the world that you don’t have to spend huge dollars to do this kind of work,” Dr. Mina said. “We should have this happening all the time.”

Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

Scientists want to build a weather system for viruses. It would require a big financial investment, plus buy-in from doctors, hospitals and blood banks.

Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

  • Feb. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Back in the summer, Dr. Michael Mina made a deal with a cold storage company. With many of its restaurant clients closed down, the firm had freezers to spare. And Dr. Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, had a half-million vials of plasma from human blood coming to his lab from across the country, samples dating back to the carefree days of January 2020.

The vials, now in three hulking freezers outside Dr. Mina’s lab, are at the center of a pilot project for what he and his collaborators call the Global Immunological Observatory. They envision an immense surveillance system that can check blood from all over the world for the presence of antibodies to hundreds of viruses at once. That way, when the next pandemic washes over us, scientists will have detailed, real-time information on how many people have been infected by the virus and how their bodies responded.

It might even offer some early notice, like a tornado warning. Although this monitoring system will not be able to detect new viruses or variants directly, it could show when large numbers of people start acquiring immunity to a particular kind of virus.

The human immune system keeps a record of pathogens it has met before, in the form of antibodies that fight against them and then stick around for life. By testing for these antibodies, scientists can get a snapshot of which flu viruses you have had, what that rhinovirus was that breezed through you last fall, even whether you had a respiratory syncytial virus as a child. Even if an infection never made you sick, it would still be picked up by this diagnostic method, called serological testing.

“We’re all like little recorders,” keeping track of viruses without realizing it, Dr. Mina said.

Spotting Patterns

This type of readout from the immune system is different from a test that looks for an active viral infection. The immune system starts to produce antibodies one to two weeks after an infection begins, so serology is retrospective, looking back at what you have caught. Also, closely related viruses may produce similar responses, provoking antibodies that bind to the same kinds of viral proteins. That means carefully designed assays are needed to distinguish between different coronaviruses, for example.

But serology uncovers things that virus testing does not, said Derek Cummings, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. With a large database of samples and clinical details, scientists can begin to see patterns emerge in how the immune system responds in someone with no symptoms compared to someone struggling to clear the virus. Serology can also reveal before an outbreak starts whether a population has robust immunity to a given virus, or if it is dangerously low.

“You want to understand what has happened in a population, and how prepared that population is for future attacks of a particular pathogen,” Dr. Cummings said.

The approach could also detect events in the viral ecosystem that otherwise go unnoticed, Dr. Cummings said. For example, the 2015 Zika outbreak was detected by doctors in Brazil who noticed a cluster of babies with abnormally small heads, born seven to nine months after their mothers were infected. “A serological observatory could conceivably have picked this up before then,” he said.

Freezers containing a half-million vials of plasma outside Dr. Mina’s lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Freezers containing a half-million vials of plasma outside Dr. Mina’s lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Serological surveys are often small and difficult to set up, since they require drawing blood from volunteers. But for several years Dr. Mina and his colleagues have been discussing the idea of a large and automated surveillance system using leftover samples from routine lab tests.

“Had we had it set up in 2019, then when this virus hit the U.S., we would have had ready access to data that would have allowed us to see it circulating in New York City, for example, without doing anything different,” Dr. Mina said.

Although the observatory would not have been able to identify the new coronavirus, it would have revealed an unusually high number of infections from the coronavirus family, which includes those that cause common colds. It might also have shown that the new coronavirus was interacting with patients’ immune systems in unexpected ways, resulting in telltale markers in the blood. That would have been a signal to start genetic sequencing of patient samples, to identify the culprit, and might have provided grounds to shut down the city earlier, Dr. Mina said. (Similarly, serology would not be able to spot the emergency of a new virus variant, like the contagious coronavirus variants that were discovered in South Africa and England before spreading elsewhere. For that, researchers must rely on standard genomic sequencing of virus test samples.)

A Powerful Investment

The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks and other sources of blood, as well as a system for acquiring consent from patients and donors. It also faces the problem of financing, noted Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington. Health insurance companies would be unlikely to foot the bill, since serology tests are usually not used by doctors to treat people.

Dr. Mina estimated that the observatory would cost about $100 million to get off the ground. He pointed out that, according to his calculations, the federal government has allocated more than twice that much to diagnostics company Ellume to produce enough rapid Covid tests to cover the American demand for only a handful of days. A pathogen observatory, he said, is like a weather forecasting system that draws on vast numbers of buoys and sensors around the globe, passively reporting on events where and when they arise. These systems have been funded by government grants and are widely valued.

The predictive power of serology is worth the investment, said Jessica Metcalf, an epidemiologist at Princeton and one of the observatory team members. A few years ago, she and her collaborators found in a smaller survey that immunity to measles was ominously low in Madagascar. Indeed, in 2018 an outbreak took hold, killing more than 10,000 children.

Now, the half-million plasma samples in Dr. Mina’s freezers, collected by the plasma donation company Octopharma from sites across the country last year, are starting to undergo serological tests focused on the new coronavirus, funded by a $2 million grant from Open Philanthropy. Testing had to wait for the researchers to set up a new robotic testing facility and process the samples, but now they are working through their first batches.

The team hopes to use this data to show how the virus flowed into the United States, week by week, and how immunity to Covid has grown and changed. They also hope it will spark interest in using serology to illuminate the movement of many more viruses.

“The big idea is to show the world that you don’t have to spend huge dollars to do this kind of work,” Dr. Mina said. “We should have this happening all the time.”

Alzheimer’s Prediction May Be Found in Writing Tests

Alzheimer’s Prediction May Be Found in Writing Tests

IBM researchers trained artificial intelligence to pick up hints of changes in language ahead of the onset of neurological diseases.

An M.R.I. scan of a patient over the age of 60 with Alzheimer’s disease.
An M.R.I. scan of a patient over the age of 60 with Alzheimer’s disease.Credit…Zephyr/Science Source
Gina Kolata

  • Feb. 1, 2021, 10:41 a.m. ET

Is it possible to predict who will develop Alzheimer’s disease simply by looking at writing patterns years before there are symptoms?

According to a new study by IBM researchers, the answer is yes.

And, they and others say that Alzheimer’s is just the beginning. People with a wide variety of neurological illnesses have distinctive language patterns that, investigators suspect, may serve as early warning signs of their diseases.

For the Alzheimer’s study, the researchers looked at a group of 80 men and women in their 80s — half had Alzheimer’s and the others did not. But, seven and a half years earlier, all had been cognitively normal.

The men and women were participants in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-running federal research effort that requires regular physical and cognitive tests. As part of it, they took a writing test before any of them had developed Alzheimer’s that asks subjects to describe a drawing of a boy standing on an unsteady stool and reaching for a cookie jar on a high shelf while a woman, her back to him, is oblivious to an overflowing sink.

The researchers examined the subjects’ word usage with an artificial intelligence program that looked for subtle differences in language. It identified one group of subjects who were more repetitive in their word usage at that earlier time when all of them were cognitively normal. These subjects also made errors, such as spelling words wrong or inappropriately capitalizing them, and they used telegraphic language, meaning language that has a simple grammatical structure and is missing subjects and words like “the,” “is” and “are.”

The members of that group turned out to be the people who developed Alzheimer’s disease.

The A.I. program predicted, with 75 percent accuracy, who would get Alzheimer’s disease, according to results published recently in The Lancet journal EClinicalMedicine.

“We had no prior assumption that word usage would show anything,” said Ajay Royyuru, vice president of health care and life sciences research at IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where the A.I. analysis was done.

Alzheimer’s researchers were intrigued, saying that when there are ways to slow or stop the illness — a goal that so far remains elusive — it will be important to have simple tests that can warn, early on, that without intervention a person will develop the progressive brain disease.

“What is going on here is very clever ” said Dr. Jason Karlawish, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “Given a large volume of spoken or written speech, can you tease out a signal?”

For years, researchers have analyzed speech and voice changes in people who have symptoms of neurological diseases — Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal dementia, bipolar disease and schizophrenia, among others.

But, said Dr. Michael Weiner, who researches Alzheimer’s disease at the University of California, San Francisco, the IBM report breaks new ground.

“This is the first report I have seen that took people who are completely normal and predicted with some accuracy who would have problems years later,” he said.

The hope is to extend the Alzheimer’s work to find subtle changes in language use by people with no obvious symptoms but who will go on to develop other neurological diseases.

Examples from the Framingham Heart Study, including (a) an unimpaired sample, (b) an impaired sample showing telegraphic speech and lack of punctuation and (c) an even more impaired sample showing in addition significant misspellings and minimal grammatic complexity.
Examples from the Framingham Heart Study, including (a) an unimpaired sample, (b) an impaired sample showing telegraphic speech and lack of punctuation and (c) an even more impaired sample showing in addition significant misspellings and minimal grammatic complexity.Credit…Elif Eyigoz et al., The Lancet 2020

Each neurological disease produces unique changes in speech, which probably occur long before the time of diagnosis, said Dr. Murray Grossman, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the university’s frontotemporal dementia center.

He has been studying speech in patients with a behavioral form of frontotemporal dementia, a disorder caused by progressive loss of nerves in the brain’s frontal lobes. These patients exhibit apathy and declines in judgment, self control and empathy that have proved difficult to objectively quantify.

Speech is different, Dr. Grossman said, because changes can be measured.

Early in the course of that disease, there are changes in the pace of the patients’ speech, with pauses distributed seemingly at random. Word usage changes, too — patients use fewer abstract words.

These alterations are directly linked to changes in the frontotemporal parts of the brain, Dr. Grossman said. And they appear to be universal, not unique to English.

Dr. Adam Boxer, director of the neurosciences clinical research unit at the University of California, San Francisco, is also studying frontotemporal dementia. His tool is a smartphone app. His subjects are healthy people who have inherited a genetic predisposition to develop the disease. His method is to show subjects a picture and ask them to record a description of what they see.

“We want to measure very early changes, five to 10 years before they have symptoms,” he said.

“The nice thing about smartphones,” Dr. Boxer added, “is that you can do all kinds of things.” Researchers can ask people to talk for a minute about something that happened that day, he said, or to repeat sounds like tatatatata.

Dr. Boxer said he and others were focusing on speech because they wanted tests that were noninvasive and inexpensive.

Dr. Cheryl Corcoran, a psychiatrist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, hopes to use speech changes to predict which adolescents and young adults at high risk for schizophrenia may go on to develop the disease.

Guillermo Cecchi, a principal researcher for computational psychiatry and neuroimaging at IBM.Credit…IBM Research

Drugs to treat schizophrenia may help those who are going to develop the disease, but the challenge is to identify who the patients will be. A quarter of people with occasional symptoms saw them go away, and about a third never progressed to schizophrenia although their occasional symptoms persisted.

Guillermo Cecchi, an IBM researcher who was also involved in the recent Alzheimer’s research, studied speech in 34 of Dr. Corcoran’s patients, looking for “flight of ideas,” meaning the instances when patients were off track when talking and spinning off ideas in different directions. He also looked for “poverty of speech,” meaning the use of simple syntactic structures and short sentences.

In addition, Dr. Cecchi and his colleagues studied another small group consisting of 96 patients in Los Angeles — 59 of whom had occasional delusions. The rest were healthy people and those with schizophrenia. He asked these subjects to retell a story that they had just heard, and he looked for the same telltale speech patterns.

In both groups, the artificial intelligence program could predict, with 85 percent accuracy, which subjects developed schizophrenia three years later.

“It’s been a lot of small studies finding the same signals,” Dr. Corcoran said. At this point, she said, “we are not at the point yet where we can tell people if they are at risk or not.”

Dr. Cecchi is encouraged, although he realizes the studies are still in their infancy.

“For us, it is a priority to do the science correctly and at scale,” he said. “We should have many more samples. There are more than 60 million psychiatric interviews in the U.S. each year but none of those interviews are using the tools we have.”

Could a Small Test Screen People for Covid-19?

Could a Smell Test Screen People for Covid?

A new modeling study hints that odor-based screens could quash outbreaks. But some experts are skeptical it would work in the real world.

A health worker in Altos de San Lorenzo, a neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, administered a smell test last year.
A health worker in Altos de San Lorenzo, a neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, administered a smell test last year.Credit…Alejandro Pagni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Katherine J. Wu

  • Jan. 19, 2021, 5:49 p.m. ET

In a perfect world, the entrance to every office, restaurant and school would offer a coronavirus test — one with absolute accuracy, and able to instantly determine who was virus-free and safe to admit and who, positively infected, should be turned away.

That reality does not exist. But as the nation struggles to regain a semblance of normal life amid the uncontrolled spread of the virus, some scientists think that a quick test consisting of little more than a stinky strip of paper might at least get us close.

The test does not look for the virus itself, nor can it diagnose disease. Rather, it screens for one of Covid-19’s trademark signs: the loss of the sense of smell. Since last spring, many researchers have come to recognize the symptom, which is also known as anosmia, as one of the best indicators of an ongoing coronavirus infection, capable of identifying even people who don’t otherwise feel sick.

A smell test cannot flag people who contract the coronavirus and never develop any symptoms at all. But in a study that has not yet been published in a scientific journal, a mathematical model showed that sniff-based tests, if administered sufficiently widely and frequently, might detect enough cases to substantially drive transmission down.

Daniel Larremore, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the study’s lead author, stressed that his team’s work was still purely theoretical. Although some smell tests are already in use in clinical and research settings, the products tend to be expensive and laborious to use and are not widely available. And in the context of the pandemic, there is not yet real-world data to support the effectiveness of smell tests as a frequent screen for the coronavirus. Given the many testing woes that have stymied pandemic control efforts so far, some experts have been doubtful that smell tests could be distributed widely enough, or made sufficiently cheat-proof, to reduce the spread of infection.

“I have been intimately involved in pushing to get loss of smell recognized as a symptom of Covid from the beginning,” said Dr. Claire Hopkins, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals in the United Kingdom and an author of a recent commentary on the subject in The Lancet. “But I just don’t see any value as a screening test.”

A reliable smell test offers many potential benefits. It could catch far more cases than fever checks, which have largely flopped as screening tools for Covid-19. Studies have found that about 50 to 90 percent of people who test positive for the coronavirus experience some degree of measurable smell loss, a result of the virus wreaking havoc when it invades cells in the airway.

“It’s really like a function of the virus being in the nose at this exact moment,” said Danielle Reed, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It complements so much of the information you get from other tests.” Last month, Dr. Reed and her colleagues at Monell posted a study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, describing a rapid smell test that might be able to screen for Covid-19.

In contrast, only a minority of people with Covid-19 end up spiking a temperature. Fevers also tend to be fleeting, while anosmia can linger for many days.

A coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles. Smell tests, unlike P.C.R. and antigen tests, would not diagnose the disease nor look for the virus directly.
A coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles. Smell tests, unlike P.C.R. and antigen tests, would not diagnose the disease nor look for the virus directly.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

A smell test could also come with an appealingly low price tag, perhaps as low as 50 cents per card, said Derek Toomre, a cell biologist at Yale University and an author on Dr. Larremore’s paper. Dr. Toomre hopes that his version will fit the bill. The test, the U-Smell-It test, is a small smorgasbord of scratch-and-sniff scents arrayed on paper cards. People taking the test pick away at wells of smells, inhale and punch their guess into a smartphone app, shooting to correctly guess at least three of the five odors. Different cards contain different combinations of scents, so there is no answer key to memorize.

He estimated that the test could be taken in less than a minute. It is also a manufacturer’s dream, he said: A single printer “could produce 50 million of these tests per day.” Numbers like that, he argued, could make an enormous dent in a country hampered by widespread lack of access to tests that look directly for pieces of the coronavirus.

In their study, Dr. Larremore, Dr. Toomre and their collaborator Roy Parker, a biochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, modeled such a scenario using computational tools. Administered daily or almost daily, a smell screen that caught at least 50 percent of new infections was able to quash outbreaks nearly as well as a more accurate, slower laboratory test given just once a week.

Such tests, Dr. Larremore said, could work as a point-of-entry screen on college campuses or in offices, perhaps in combination with a rapid virus test. There might even be a place for them in the home, if researchers can find a way to minimize misuse.

“I think this is spot on,” said Dr. Carol Yan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of California, San Diego. “Testing people repeatedly is going to be a valuable portion of this.”

Dr. Toomre is now seeking an emergency use authorization for the U-Smell-It from the Food and Drug Administration, and has partnered with a number of groups in Europe and elsewhere to trial the test under real-world conditions.

Translating theory into practice, however, will come with many challenges. Smell tests that can reliably identify people who have the coronavirus, while excluding people who are sick with something else, are not yet widely available. (Dr. Hopkins pointed to a couple of smell tests, developed before the pandemic, that cost about $30 each and remain in limited supply.) Should they ever be rolled out in bulk, they would inevitably miss some infected people and, unlike tests that look for the actual virus, could never diagnose disease on their own.

And smell loss, like fever, is not exclusive to Covid-19. Other infections can blunt a person’s sense of smell. So can allergies, nasal congestion from the common cold, or simply the process of aging. About 80 percent of people over the age of 75 have some degree of smell loss. Some people are born anosmic.

Moreover, in many cases of Covid-19, smell loss can linger long after the virus is gone and people are no longer contagious — a complication that could land some people in a post-Covid purgatory if they are forced to rely on smell screens to resume activity, Dr. Yan said.

There are also many ways to design a smell-based screen. Odors linked to foods that are popular in some countries but not others, such as bubble gum or licorice, might skew test results for some individuals. People who have grown up in highly urban areas might not readily recognize scents from nature, like pine or fresh-cut grass.

Smell also is not a binary sense, strictly on or off. Dr. Reed advocated a step in which test takers rate the intensity of a test’s odors — an acknowledgment that the coronavirus can drastically reduce the sense of smell but not eliminate it.

But the more complicated the test, the more difficult it would be to manufacture and deploy speedily. And no test, even a perfectly designed one, would function with 100 percent accuracy.

Dr. Ameet Kini, a pathologist at Loyola University Medical Center, pointed out that smell tests would also not be free of the problems associated with other types of tests, such as poor compliance or a refusal to isolate.

Smell screens are “probably better than nothing,” Dr. Kini said. “But no test is going to stop the pandemic in its tracks unless it’s combined with other measures.”

Could a Smell Test Screen People for Covid?

Could a Smell Test Screen People for Covid?

A new modeling study hints that odor-based screens could quash outbreaks. But some experts are skeptical it would work in the real world.

A health worker in Altos de San Lorenzo, a neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, administered a smell test last year.
A health worker in Altos de San Lorenzo, a neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, administered a smell test last year.Credit…Alejandro Pagni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Katherine J. Wu

  • Jan. 19, 2021, 5:49 p.m. ET

In a perfect world, the entrance to every office, restaurant and school would offer a coronavirus test — one with absolute accuracy, and able to instantly determine who was virus-free and safe to admit and who, positively infected, should be turned away.

That reality does not exist. But as the nation struggles to regain a semblance of normal life amid the uncontrolled spread of the virus, some scientists think that a quick test consisting of little more than a stinky strip of paper might at least get us close.

The test does not look for the virus itself, nor can it diagnose disease. Rather, it screens for one of Covid-19’s trademark signs: the loss of the sense of smell. Since last spring, many researchers have come to recognize the symptom, which is also known as anosmia, as one of the best indicators of an ongoing coronavirus infection, capable of identifying even people who don’t otherwise feel sick.

A smell test cannot flag people who contract the coronavirus and never develop any symptoms at all. But in a study that has not yet been published in a scientific journal, a mathematical model showed that sniff-based tests, if administered sufficiently widely and frequently, might detect enough cases to substantially drive transmission down.

Daniel Larremore, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the study’s lead author, stressed that his team’s work was still purely theoretical. Although some smell tests are already in use in clinical and research settings, the products tend to be expensive and laborious to use and are not widely available. And in the context of the pandemic, there is not yet real-world data to support the effectiveness of smell tests as a frequent screen for the coronavirus. Given the many testing woes that have stymied pandemic control efforts so far, some experts have been doubtful that smell tests could be distributed widely enough, or made sufficiently cheat-proof, to reduce the spread of infection.

“I have been intimately involved in pushing to get loss of smell recognized as a symptom of Covid from the beginning,” said Dr. Claire Hopkins, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals in the United Kingdom and an author of a recent commentary on the subject in The Lancet. “But I just don’t see any value as a screening test.”

A reliable smell test offers many potential benefits. It could catch far more cases than fever checks, which have largely flopped as screening tools for Covid-19. Studies have found that about 50 to 90 percent of people who test positive for the coronavirus experience some degree of measurable smell loss, a result of the virus wreaking havoc when it invades cells in the airway.

“It’s really like a function of the virus being in the nose at this exact moment,” said Danielle Reed, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It complements so much of the information you get from other tests.” Last month, Dr. Reed and her colleagues at Monell posted a study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, describing a rapid smell test that might be able to screen for Covid-19.

In contrast, only a minority of people with Covid-19 end up spiking a temperature. Fevers also tend to be fleeting, while anosmia can linger for many days.

A coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles. Smell tests, unlike P.C.R. and antigen tests, would not diagnose the disease nor look for the virus directly.
A coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles. Smell tests, unlike P.C.R. and antigen tests, would not diagnose the disease nor look for the virus directly.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

A smell test could also come with an appealingly low price tag, perhaps as low as 50 cents per card, said Derek Toomre, a cell biologist at Yale University and an author on Dr. Larremore’s paper. Dr. Toomre hopes that his version will fit the bill. The test, the U-Smell-It test, is a small smorgasbord of scratch-and-sniff scents arrayed on paper cards. People taking the test pick away at wells of smells, inhale and punch their guess into a smartphone app, shooting to correctly guess at least three of the five odors. Different cards contain different combinations of scents, so there is no answer key to memorize.

He estimated that the test could be taken in less than a minute. It is also a manufacturer’s dream, he said: A single printer “could produce 50 million of these tests per day.” Numbers like that, he argued, could make an enormous dent in a country hampered by widespread lack of access to tests that look directly for pieces of the coronavirus.

In their study, Dr. Larremore, Dr. Toomre and their collaborator Roy Parker, a biochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, modeled such a scenario using computational tools. Administered daily or almost daily, a smell screen that caught at least 50 percent of new infections was able to quash outbreaks nearly as well as a more accurate, slower laboratory test given just once a week.

Such tests, Dr. Larremore said, could work as a point-of-entry screen on college campuses or in offices, perhaps in combination with a rapid virus test. There might even be a place for them in the home, if researchers can find a way to minimize misuse.

“I think this is spot on,” said Dr. Carol Yan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of California, San Diego. “Testing people repeatedly is going to be a valuable portion of this.”

Dr. Toomre is now seeking an emergency use authorization for the U-Smell-It from the Food and Drug Administration, and has partnered with a number of groups in Europe and elsewhere to trial the test under real-world conditions.

Translating theory into practice, however, will come with many challenges. Smell tests that can reliably identify people who have the coronavirus, while excluding people who are sick with something else, are not yet widely available. (Dr. Hopkins pointed to a couple of smell tests, developed before the pandemic, that cost about $30 each and remain in limited supply.) Should they ever be rolled out in bulk, they would inevitably miss some infected people and, unlike tests that look for the actual virus, could never diagnose disease on their own.

And smell loss, like fever, is not exclusive to Covid-19. Other infections can blunt a person’s sense of smell. So can allergies, nasal congestion from the common cold, or simply the process of aging. About 80 percent of people over the age of 75 have some degree of smell loss. Some people are born anosmic.

Moreover, in many cases of Covid-19, smell loss can linger long after the virus is gone and people are no longer contagious — a complication that could land some people in a post-Covid purgatory if they are forced to rely on smell screens to resume activity, Dr. Yan said.

There are also many ways to design a smell-based screen. Odors linked to foods that are popular in some countries but not others, such as bubble gum or licorice, might skew test results for some individuals. People who have grown up in highly urban areas might not readily recognize scents from nature, like pine or fresh-cut grass.

Smell also is not a binary sense, strictly on or off. Dr. Reed advocated a step in which test takers rate the intensity of a test’s odors — an acknowledgment that the coronavirus can drastically reduce the sense of smell but not eliminate it.

But the more complicated the test, the more difficult it would be to manufacture and deploy speedily. And no test, even a perfectly designed one, would function with 100 percent accuracy.

Dr. Ameet Kini, a pathologist at Loyola University Medical Center, pointed out that smell tests would also not be free of the problems associated with other types of tests, such as poor compliance or a refusal to isolate.

Smell screens are “probably better than nothing,” Dr. Kini said. “But no test is going to stop the pandemic in its tracks unless it’s combined with other measures.”

Kids and Covid Tests: What You Need to Know

So You Think Your Kid Needs a Covid Test

Here’s everything you need to know about when to get it and what to expect.

Credit…Sonia Pulido
Christina Caron

  • Jan. 13, 2021, 6:00 a.m. ET

My 4-year-old daughter is pretty tough when it comes to medical procedures. The flu shot? Not even a flinch. Stitches in her forehead? No big deal. Years earlier, she calmly watched as a nurse pricked her finger and squeezed the blood, drop by drop, into a tiny vial to test it for lead.

But the Covid test was different.

In early September, just before her preschool reopened, she began sneezing and had a sore throat. When her congestion worsened, we knew that she needed to get a coronavirus test. But as the nurse approached her, holding a long stick with a brush on the end resembling a pipe cleaner, she covered her face and backed away. In the end, two people had to hold her down. She screamed as the swab activated her lacrimal reflex, bringing tears to her eyes. It was over quickly, but she cried for half an hour afterward and insisted that she would never visit another doctor again. She now refers to that probe as “the needle.”

In late December she needed another test for her preschool, but this time she wasn’t sick. With the memory of her last experience still fresh in my mind, I immediately started researching. Were there less invasive tests to consider? If so, how would we find one? Would it be accurate enough? And was there an ideal way to prepare a squeamish young child who was averse to getting tested?

As it turned out, none of these questions had simple answers. So I consulted with five doctors and two of the largest urgent care providers in the United States to learn more.

How do I know if my child needs a test?

There are four main reasons a child might need to be tested:

  • They have symptoms

  • They have been exposed to someone infected with the virus

  • Their school, day care or a hospital requires it

  • They need it as a precaution before and after traveling

If your child has any symptoms of Covid — even mild ones like a runny nose or a sore throat — it’s a good idea for them to get tested and stay home, said Dr. Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics, the largest pediatric primary care group in the country, and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.

“We have seen, time and time again, kids with very mild symptoms with no known exposures who get tested with our very accurate PCR and sure enough, they come back positive,” Dr. Spinner said.

If your child has been in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 — even if your child does not have any symptoms — they should get tested, the experts said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define close contact as spending at least 15 minutes within six feet of someone who has the coronavirus, or having any type of direct physical contact with an infected person, including kissing or hugging.

If your child is in school or day care, those institutions may have rules on when they must be tested, and how.

It’s safest to stay home, but if you and your children must travel, the C.D.C. recommends getting tested one to three days before your trip and then again three to five days after your trip.

If you’re still unsure if your child needs a test, call their pediatrician, said Dr. Kristin Moffitt, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. You can also take the C.D.C.’s clinical assessment tool, which can be used for any family member, including children.

Which types of tests are available for kids?

Virus testing for children is, for the most part, the same as it is for adults. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the emergency use of two basic categories of diagnostic test. The most sensitive ones are the molecular PCR tests, which detect the genetic material of the virus and can take days to deliver results (some locations offer results in as little as a day). The second type of test, the antigen test, hunts for fragments of proteins that are found on or within the coronavirus. Antigen tests typically yield results quickly, within 15 minutes, but can be less sensitive than the molecular tests.

The way your provider collects your sample can vary. For instance, regardless of whether you get a PCR test or an antigen test, the collection method could be any of the following: nasopharyngeal swab (the long swab with a brush at the end that reaches all the way up the nose toward the throat); a shorter swab that is inserted about an inch into the nostrils; a long swab of the tonsils at the back of the throat; or a short swab swizzled on the gums and cheeks. The new saliva tests, which are still being vetted, require you to drool into a sterilized container, which could be difficult for young children.

FastMed Urgent Care, which has a network of more than 100 clinics in Arizona, North Carolina and Texas, currently uses a long swab to perform the rapid antigen test and a short swab for the PCR test, said Dr. Lane Tassin, one of the company’s chief medical officers. But MedExpress, a different urgent care group with clinics in 16 states, tests all patients with the shorter nasal swab when doing either PCR or antigen tests at its nearly 200 urgent care centers, said Jane Trombetta, the company’s chief clinical officer.

Which diagnostic test should my child get?

The type of test that your child gets will largely depend on what is available in your area, how long it takes to get the results back and why the child needs it, the experts said.

Some day care centers and schools will only accept PCR results for clearance to return to school, so it is best to double check their rules beforehand.

The long-swab molecular test is considered the “gold standard,” but other less-invasive testing methods are also reliable. For routine testing, Dr. Jay K. Varma, senior advisor for public health at the Office of the Mayor of New York City, said the shorter swab “performs basically as well as the longer, deeper swab does. That’s true in both adults and children.” In fact, he added, New York City’s public hospital testing sites began switching from the long swab to the short swab during the summer.

Dr. Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, said she likes the antigen tests because they can quickly identify Covid-positive kids when they are contagious. Antigen tests are most accurate when the amount of virus in the sample is highest — typically around the day that symptoms start.

If you have a preference on which test you’d like your child to get, call your pediatrician’s office first and ask what kinds of tests they perform and how they collect the samples. Clarify whether they use the shallow (anterior) swab or the long (nasopharyngeal) swab. If you want the more comfortable, shallow PCR test but your pediatrician’s office does not offer it, try other testing centers in your area, including pediatric urgent care centers.

Some tests are now available for home use. But if you’re using a home test, check the label. Some aren’t indicated for children.

Are there any downsides to getting my kid tested? Is it safe?

Many testing sites offer drive-through services where you don’t need to leave your car. But if you must walk into a clinic, the experts I spoke with said that the risk of getting Covid while you’re there is low.

“In my experience, everyone that is delivering health care now is being incredibly careful with infection control,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, the vice chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases. “The risk of going into a health care facility is probably pretty low relative to a lot of the other things people are currently engaging in in the U.S.”

Testing facilities require people to wear masks and to maintain physical distancing, he added.

The experts also said that the tests themselves are not harmful for young children, including infants, even if done repeatedly. The long swab may produce discomfort for a brief period — Dr. O’Leary jokingly calls it the “brain biopsy” — but he is not aware of any long-term risk to the nose or throat.

How can I prepare my child for the test?

To avoid any surprises, ask your provider about which types of tests they offer and how they collect the samples ahead of time.

It’s usually best to be straightforward with your kid about what to expect. For short nasal swabs, explain that a doctor will tickle the inside of their nose with a cotton swab to collect their boogers, and that it won’t hurt.

For the long swab, you may want to prepare your child by explaining that the swab might feel a little uncomfortable, but that it will be over quickly. You can also share that kids of all ages are getting the test, even babies.

Over all, convey that it’s no big deal and it’s something that simply needs to get done, Dr. Lighter said.

“Kids are only as anxious as the information that’s coming to them,” she added.

If your child might be intimidated by the protective gowns, masks and face shields that health providers wear, explain that they wear that clothing to stay safe — kind of like how people wear cloth masks when they go outside.

Some hospitals have created videos like this one from the Children’s Hospital Colorado that show how the Covid test works and what families can expect. If your child is old enough to understand, it might be helpful to watch a video like this together and then talk about it afterward.

Try to find out how long you might need to wait. Many areas have long lines at testing sites, so consider bringing water, snacks and entertainment (crayons, storybooks) for your kids.

If your child’s pediatrician is administering Covid tests, it might be reassuring for your child to have the test performed by someone they are already familiar with. But if not, “try and go somewhere that has experience working with children,” Dr. O’Leary said. Doctors and nurses who test children regularly will most likely know what to do if your child is nervous or scared.

A Colonoscopy Alternative Comes Home

A Colonoscopy Alternative Comes Home

An at-home test for colon cancer is as reliable as the traditional screening, health experts say, and more agreeable.

Credit…Karlotta Freier

  • Jan. 11, 2021, 1:40 p.m. ET

Most Americans who are due for a colon cancer screening will receive a postcard or a call — or prompting during a doctor’s visit — to remind them that it’s time to schedule a colonoscopy.

But at big health care systems like Kaiser Permanente or the federal Veterans Health Administration, the process has changed. Patients who should be screened regularly (age 50 to 75) and who are of average risk, get a letter telling them about a home test kit arriving by mail.

It’s a FIT, which stands for fecal immunochemical test. The small cardboard mailer contains equipment and instructions for taking a stool sample and returning the test to a lab, to detect microscopic amounts of blood. A week or so later, the results show up on an online patient portal.

Five to 6 percent of patients will have a positive test and need to schedule a follow-up colonoscopy. But the great majority are finished with colon cancer screening for the year — no uncomfortable prep, no need to skip work or find someone to drive them home after anesthesia, no colonoscopy.

Last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic closed many medical facilities and postponed nonemergency procedures, this approach suddenly looked even more desirable.

“We know that from March to May, colon cancer screenings fell by about 90 percent,” said Dr. Rachel Issaka, a gastroenterologist at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Although testing has resumed, she said, “we’re still not back to where we were.”

Yet colon cancer represents the third-highest cause of cancer deaths, after lung cancer and, tied for second place, breast and prostate cancer. Unlike those, colon cancer can be prevented with early detection.

With many older adults trying to avoid hospitals and surgical centers, even as their risk of colon cancer rises with age, an at-home test provides an alternative to colonoscopy — one that is both safer, with a lower risk of complications and Covid-19 exposure, and does as good a job.

“If your doctor tells you a colonoscopy is better, that’s not accurate,” said Dr. Alex Krist, chairman of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent expert panel that reviews evidence and issues recommendations. “The data show the tests are equally effective at saving lives.”

The Task Force is updating its guidelines for colon cancer screening and this year will likely recommend lowering the age at which it should begin, to 45. But the recommendations on the upper end will remain unchanged: Based on strong evidence, adults up to age 75 should be screened regularly.

Beyond that age, the disadvantages begin to mount. The Task Force says the benefit of screening 76- to 85-year-olds is small, and that the decision should be an individual one, reached in consultation with a doctor.

Colon cancer develops slowly, explained Dr. James Goodwin, a geriatrician and researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Patients at older ages, who typically contend with several other diseases, may not live long enough to benefit. “You cause more harm than good,” Dr. Goodwin said.

The advice to stop screening isn’t always popular with patients. “People don’t like to hear about not living very long,” he said. But with colonoscopy, he noted, “you go through an unpleasant experience — or an unpleasant experience followed by an unpleasant diagnosis and unpleasant treatment — for something that, if you’d never known about it, wouldn’t cause you harm.”

Even if a test eventually finds colon cancer, surgery plus chemotherapy, the standard treatment, could itself endanger a frail older person. “I would be heavily biased against anyone getting a screening, of any sort, over age 80,” Dr. Goodwin said.

Although Americans still rely mostly on colonoscopy, his research has shown that for many older people, that test is overused, either because of the patients’ ages or because they are tested too frequently.

Yet screening is simultaneously underused. In 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 70 percent of adults were up-to-date on colorectal cancer testing. About one-fifth of those 65 to 75 had not been screened as recommended. Among those 50 to 65, where lack of Medicare or other insurance probably contributed, only about 63 percent were appropriately screened.

The Task Force has found several kinds of screening tests effective, but the ones used most for people at average risk are colonoscopy, at a recommended 10-year interval, or FIT annually.

A newer entry, an at-home test sold under the brand name Cologuard that detects blood and cancer biomarkers in stool, may be used every three years, but a study found it to be less effective than most other methods and far more expensive than FIT.

When screening is recommended, how does FIT stack up against colonoscopy?

Higher-risk patients — including those who have had colon cancer or parents or siblings with colon cancer, those with inflammatory bowel disorders like Crohn’s disease, and those who have had abnormal previous tests, including multiple or large polyps — should seek out a colonoscopy, often on an accelerated schedule. The procedure involves inserting a viewing instrument through the anus to directly visualize an anesthetized patient’s colon.

A colonoscopy offers one distinct advantage: if the gastroenterologist spots polyps, growths that over time could become cancerous (although most don’t), these can be removed immediately. “You’re preventing cancer, snipping out the things that could lead to cancer,” Dr. Goodwin said. After a negative colonoscopy, patients don’t need another for a decade.

But the procedure’s complications increase with age, although they remain low; the most serious, a perforated colon, requires hospitalization. Cleaning out the bowel on the day before the procedure, in preparation, is disruptive and disagreeable, and Dr. Goodwin notes that older patients sometimes experience cycles of diarrhea and constipation for weeks afterward.

Rural residents may find traveling to a facility difficult. The use of anesthesia means that every patient needs someone to drive or escort them home afterward. The prospect of spending two to four hours in a facility, even one using rigorous safety measures, will cause some older adults to postpone testing because of Covid-19 fears.

The FIT, which is far more widely used in other countries, avoids many of those difficulties. A marked improvement over earlier at-home stool tests, it requires a sample from one day instead of samples from three, and imposes no food or drug restrictions. A positive result still calls for a colonoscopy, but the great majority of patients avoid that outcome.

Why do so many Americans still undergo colonoscopies, then? “There’s a large financial incentive for people who do colonoscopies to do colonoscopies,” Dr. Goodwin said, so patients may not hear much about the alternatives.

“Many of my own patients are surprised to learn that there’s another way,” said Dr. Krist, also a family physician at Virginia Commonwealth University. “As they age, they want less invasive methods” and may be happy to switch.

Wider adoption of FIT could also save patients and insurers, notably Medicare, a boatload. The home test, which is available through several manufacturers, generally costs less than $20; a colonoscopy can easily exceed $1,000.

Moreover, with personalized messages to patients and follow-up reminders to return the kit, FIT use can result in more people being screened. That could prove important when the Preventive Services Task Force lowers the recommended age to 45, which would add 22 million Americans to the list of people advised to undergo colon cancer screening. Their needs, plus a backlog of patients who postponed tests during the pandemic, could swamp gastroenterology practices.

“If a provider doesn’t bring up” the possibility of an at-home test, Dr. Issaka said, “patients should feel empowered to ask about it.” Colon cancer screenings, of any type, “are considered non-urgent,” she said. “But they’re not optional.”

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Covid Guide: How to Get Through the Pandemic

Dec. 18, 2020

Hang in there, help is on the way

Times are tough now, but the end is in sight. If we hunker down, keep our families safe during the holidays and monitor our health at home, life will get better in the spring. Here’s how to get through it.

Tara Parker-Pope

Illustrations by Vinnie Neuberg

Everyone is tired of living like this. We miss our families and our friends. We miss having fun. We miss kissing our partners goodbye in the morning and packing school lunches. We miss travel and bars and office gossip and movie theaters and sporting events.

We miss normal life.

It has been a long, difficult year, and there are many tough weeks still ahead. The coronavirus is raging, and the United States is facing a grim winter, on track for 450,000 deaths from Covid-19 by February, maybe more.

But if we can safely soldier through these next few months, then normal life — or at least a new version of normal — will be within reach. New vaccines that are highly protective against coronavirus are being rolled out right now, first to health care workers and the most vulnerable groups, and then to the general population this spring.

“Help is on the way,” says Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. “A vaccine is literally on the threshold of being implemented. To me that is more of an incentive to not give up, but to double down and say, ‘We’re going to get through this.’”

The vaccine won’t change life overnight. It will take months to get enough people vaccinated so that the virus has nowhere to go. But the more everyone does their part to slow down the virus now — by wearing a mask and restricting social contacts — the better and faster the vaccine will work to slow the pandemic once we can all start getting vaccinated this spring.

“Why would you want to be one of the people who is the last person to get infected?” says Dr. Fauci. “It’s almost like being the last person to get killed in a war. You want to hang in there and protect yourself, because the end is in sight.”

(1)

Hunker Down for a Little Bit Longer

The pandemic is surging, but as bad as things are, the end is in sight. By doubling down on precautions, we can slow the virus and save lives.

A crucial number to watch this winter is the test positivity rate for your state and community. The number represents the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive compared to the overall number of tests being given, and it’s an important indicator of your risk of coming down with Covid-19. When positive test rates in a community stay at 5 percent or lower for two weeks, you’re less likely to cross paths with an infected person. Since the fall, the national test positivity rate has crept above 10 percent, and it’s been 30 percent or higher in several states.

Rising case counts and rising test positivity rates mean there is more virus out there — and you need to double down on precautions, especially if you have a high-risk person in your orbit. Cut back on trips to the store or start having groceries delivered. Scale back your holiday plans. Don’t invite friends indoors, even for a few minutes. Always keep six feet of distance from people who don’t live in your home. Skip haircuts and manicures until the numbers come down again. Wear a mask.

Close your leaky bubble.

Here’s the harsh reality of virus transmission: If someone in your family gets sick, the infection probably came from you, another family member or someone you know. The main way coronavirus is transmitted is through close contact with an infected person in an enclosed space.

“One of the challenges we have is that familiarity is seen as being a virus protector,” said Michael Osterholm, a member of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s coronavirus advisory group and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “More likely than not, knowing someone is the risk factor for getting infected.”

This summer, 47 percent of Americans said they had formed a “pod” or social “bubble” that includes two or more households committed to strict precautions so the group can safely socialize indoors.But sometimes your bubble is leakier than you realize. Farhad Manjoo, an opinion columnist for The Times, had initially assumed his bubble was pretty small, but it turned out that he was having direct or indirect contact with more than 100 people.

Whether your bubble is just your immediate household — or you’ve formed a bubble with others — take some time to check in with everyone and seal the leaks. This requires everyone to be honest about the precautions they’re taking (or not taking). Dr. Osterholm said that convincing people that their friends might infect them has been one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic. He told the story of a man and a woman who both contracted Covid-19 after attending a wedding.

“He told me, ‘We didn’t fly. I knew everybody there,’” said Dr. Osterholm. “He somehow had the mistaken belief that by knowing the person, you won’t get infected from them. We’ve got to break through that concept.”

Mask up. You’re going to need it for a while.

A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated that 130,000 lives could be saved by February if mask use became universal in the United States immediately.

Various studies have used machines puffing fine mists to show that high-quality masks can significantly reduce the spread of pathogens between people in conversation. And the common-sense evidence that masks work has become overwhelming. One well-known C.D.C. study showed that, even in a Springfield, Mo., hair salon where two stylists were infected, not one of the 139 customers whose hair they cut over the course of 10 days caught the disease. A city health order had required that both the stylists and the customers be masked.

Choose a mask with two or three layers that fits well and covers your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin. “Something is better than nothing,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading aerosol scientists. “Even the simplest cloth mask of one layer of material blocks half or more of aerosols we think are important to transmission.”

Watch the clock, and take the fun outside.

When making decisions about how you’re spending your time this winter, watch the clock. If you’re spending time indoors with people who don’t live with you, wear a mask and keep the visit as short as possible. (Better yet, don’t do it at all.) Layer up, get hand warmers, some blankets, an outdoor heater — and move social events outdoors.

In an enclosed space, like an office, at a birthday party, in a restaurant or in a church, you can still become infected from a person across the room if you share the same air for an extended period of time. There’s no proven time limit that is safest, but based on contact tracing guidelines and the average rate at which we expel viral particles — through breathing, speaking, singing and coughing — it’s best to wear a mask and keep indoor activities, like shopping or haircuts, to about 30 minutes.

Take care of yourself, save a medical worker.

The country’s doctors, nurses and other health care workers are at a breaking point. Long gone are the raucous nightly cheers, loud applause and clanging that bounced off buildings and hospital windows in the United States and abroad — the sounds of public appreciation each night at 7 for those on the pandemic’s front line.

“Nobody’s clapping anymore,” said Dr. Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “They’re over it.”

In interviews, more than two dozen frontline medical workers described the unrelenting stress that has become an endemic part of the health care crisis nationwide. Jina Saltzman, a physician assistant in Chicago, said she was growing increasingly disillusioned with the nation’s lax approach to penning in the virus. In mid-November, she was astounded to see crowds of unmasked people in a restaurant as she picked up a pizza. “It’s so disheartening. We’re coming here to work every day to keep the public safe,” she said. “But the public isn’t trying to keep the public safe.”

(2)

Scale Back Your Holiday Plans

How and when the pandemic ends will depend on the choices we make this winter, particularly around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Nobody wants to open presents by Zoom, light holiday candles at home alone or clink virtual champagne glasses to ring in the New Year.

But here we are, in the midst of a surging pandemic, on course to losing nearly a half million souls in less than a year. Despite the promise of a vaccine on the horizon, only a tiny fraction of Americans will be vaccinated by the end of December. Vaccines won’t enter large-scale distribution until spring 2021.

The only way to drive down infection rates for now will be to avoid large indoor gatherings, wear masks, cancel travel and limit your holiday celebrations to just those who live in your home.

Dr. Fauci said he, his wife and three daughters, who live in different parts of the country, all made a family decision not to travel for the holidays. It will be the first Christmas in 30 years that the entire family won’t be together.

“I’m a person in an age group that’s at high risk of serious consequences,” said Dr. Fauci. “That’s the first Thanksgiving since any of my three daughters were born that we have not spent it as a family. That was painful, but it was something that needed to be done. We are going to do the same thing over Christmas for the simple reason that I don’t see anything changing between Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah. In fact, I see it getting worse.”

If you do travel, get tested.

People who choose to travel over the holiday season despite the warnings should consider taking precautions. First, try to quarantine for at least a week (two weeks if possible) before your trip or visit with another household. The C.D.C. now recommends that domestic air travelers get tested before and after their trip.

Remember, a lot can go wrong between the time you take a test and the moment you hug Grandma. Not only are false negatives possible, you need to consider the risk of catching the virus after taking the test — in an airport, in a plane or from a taxi driver or rental car agent.

For a laboratory test, check the turnaround time in your area and try to schedule it as close as possible to your visit. If you’re using rapid testing, try to take more than one test over the days leading up to your visit, and if possible, get a rapid test on the same day you plan to visit family, friends or a vulnerable person. Test again after you arrive if you can.

Plan a safer holiday gathering.

If you’re determined to have people to your home for the holidays, keep the guest list small and consider these precautions.

Get tested: If testing is available in your area, consider asking all guests to be tested a few days before the holiday, timing it so they get the results before coming to your home. If rapid testing is available, get tested a few times during the week and on the day of the social event.

Move the event outside: Even if it’s cold outside, try hosting all or part of your holiday celebration outdoors. Look into space heaters and fire pits to warm a porch or patio. Even a partially open space, like a screened-in porch or a garage with the door open, is better than socializing indoors. If you decide to stay indoors, open the windows and turn on exhaust fans to help ventilate your home.

Wear masks: All guests should wear a mask when not eating. If you’re the host, set the example and put your mask on after the meal is over and everyone is enjoying the conversation. Limit the amount of time you spend together indoors.

Socialize outdoors the Scandinavian way.

In the pandemic, rather than feeling depressed that the arrival of cold weather will mean that you’ll be isolated indoors, apart from friends and family, we can take lessons from Scandinavians about how to continue getting together outdoors.

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Take Care of Yourself at Home

Covid-19 can be scary, but we’ve learned a lot about how to monitor the illness and home — and when to seek hospital care.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about how to care for people infected with Covid-19. Death rates from the disease are dropping as doctors have gotten better at treating it and advising patients when to seek medical care.

Steroids like dexamethasone have lowered the number of deaths among hospitalized patients by about one-third. And although limited in supply, monoclonal antibodies, a treatment given to President Trump when he was ill with coronavirus, can possibly shorten hospital stays when given early in the course of infection.

But the vast majority of patients with Covid-19 will manage the illness at home. Check in with your doctor early in the course of your illness, and make a plan for monitoring your health and checking in again if you start to feel worse.

Get tested if you have symptoms.

Ideally, you should be able to get a coronavirus test whenever you want it. But in the United States, test availability varies around the country, depending on whether supplies are low or labs are overwhelmed. Check with your doctor, an urgent care clinic or your local health department about where to get tested in your area.

If you feel sick, you should be tested for Covid-19. A dry cough, fatigue, headache, fever or loss of sense of smell are some of the common symptoms of Covid-19. After you take your test, stay isolated from others and alert the people you’ve spent time with over the last few days, so they can take precautions while you’re waiting for your result. Many tests will work best if you are in the first week of your symptoms.

Track your symptoms.

Marking your calendar at the first sign of illness, and tracking your symptoms and oxygen levels, are important steps in monitoring a coronavirus infection. Covid-19 has been unpredictable in the range of symptoms it can cause. But when it turns serious, it often follows a consistent pattern.

While every patient is different, doctors say that days five through 10 of the illness are often the most worrisome time for respiratory complications of Covid-19. Covid-19 is a miserable illness, and it’s not always easy to know when to go to the emergency room. It’s important during this time to stay in touch with your doctor. Telemedicine makes it possible to consult with your doctor without exposing others to your illness.

Get a fingertip pulse oximeter.

The best way to monitor your health during Covid-19 is to use a pulse oximeter, a small device that clips onto your finger and measures your blood oxygen levels. If it drops to 93 or lower, it could be a sign that your oxygen levels are dropping. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

Pro tip: One of the things to remember about reading a pulse oximeter is that many of them are designed to be read by someone facing you, not the person wearing it. If you’re looking at it upside down, a healthy reading of 98 could look like an alarming 86.

Caring for someone with Covid-19

Caring for someone with mild to moderate symptoms of the coronavirus is similar to caring for someone with the flu. Give them supportive care, fluids, soups and Tylenol, and have them take their temperature and monitor oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter regularly. Always wear a mask in the sick person’s room even if they are not there or have recovered. Coronavirus particles can last as long as three days on various surfaces, and can be shaken loose when you pick up clothes, change bedding or pick up soiled tissues.

The plight of “Covid long-haulers”

It’s unclear how many people develop lingering and sometimes debilitating symptoms after a bout of Covid-19. Such symptoms — ranging from breathing trouble to heart issues to cognitive and psychological problems — are already plaguing an untold number of people worldwide. Even for people who were never sick enough to be hospitalized, the aftermath can be long and grueling, with a complex and lasting mix of symptoms.

There is an urgent need to address long-term symptoms of the coronavirus, leading public health officials say, warning that hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people worldwide might experience lingering problems that could impede their ability to work and function normally.

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Look for Better Days This Spring

With the rollout of the vaccine, an end to the pandemic is in sight. Life will start to feel more normal in mid- to late 2021, depending on how many people get vaccinated.

Earlier this month, The Times spoke with Dr. Fauci about his predictions for the spring. Here’s what he had to say.

The end game for viral disease outbreaks, particularly respiratory diseases, is a vaccine. We can do public health measures that are tempering things, waiting for the ultimate showstopper, which is a vaccine. That’s why I’m saying we need to double down even more on public health measures to get us through to the period when enough people in this country will be vaccinated that the virus will have no place to go. It will be a blanket or an umbrella of herd immunity.

We have crushed similar outbreaks historically. We did it with smallpox. We did it with polio. We did it with measles. We can do it with this coronavirus. It requires a highly efficacious vaccine. Thank goodness we have that. We have multiple vaccines, two of which clearly are very efficacious, and I feel confident that the others that are coming along will be comparably efficacious.

Then the second part of that is getting the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated. I think that likely will have to be about 70 to 75 percent of people in this country. If we do that, that will be the indicator of when things will get back to normal, when you won’t have to worry about going in a restaurant, when you won’t have to worry about having a dinner party, when the children won’t have to worry about going to school, when factories can open and not worry about their employees getting sick and going to the hospital. That will happen, I guarantee you. If people appreciate the importance of getting vaccinated, and we have a high uptake of vaccines, that will happen. That’s what the future will look like.

The future doesn’t need to be bleak. It’s within our hands to really shape the future, both by public health measures and by taking up the vaccine. — Dr. Fauci

What you need to know about the new vaccines

There aren’t enough doses right now for everyone, so initially the vaccine will be rationed for those who need it most. It will take time to produce and distribute the vaccine, and then schedule two vaccinations per person, three to four weeks apart. As more vaccines get approved, things will speed up. At least 40 million doses (enough for 20 million people) should be available from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year, and much more will come in 2021.

The challenges ahead for widespread vaccination

The success of the new vaccines will depend on more than how well they performed in a clinical trial. While there’s much reason for optimism, a lot can still go wrong.

First there’s the challenge of manufacturing and distributing the doses. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have struggled to ramp up vaccine production. They have run short on materials like the bags that line the containers in which the vaccines are made. Both of the leading vaccines must be stored in freezing conditions. And state and local governments have to figure out how to get the vaccines from production facilities into people’s arms.

The dark cloud hanging over vaccine distribution

The vaccines will be much less effective at preventing death and illness in 2021 if they are introduced into a population where the coronavirus is raging — as is now the case in the United States.

An analogy may be helpful here, says David Leonhardt, who writes The Morning newsletter for The Times. He explains that a vaccine that’s 95 percent effective, as Moderna’s and Pfizer’s versions appear to be, is a powerful fire hose. But the size of a fire is still a bigger determinant of how much destruction occurs.

Even if the vaccine is distributed at the expected pace, at the current infection level, experts predict that the country would still face a terrible toll during the six months after the vaccine was introduced. Almost 10 million or so Americans would contract the virus, and more than 160,000 would die.

There is one positive way to look at this: Measures that reduce the virus’s spread — like mask-wearing, social distancing and rapid-result testing — can still have profound consequences. They can save more than 100,000 lives in coming months.

Hoping vaccine skepticism will fade

Despite images of relieved health care workers getting a shot in the arm flashing across TV screens and news sites, a new survey finds that more than one-quarter of Americans say they probably or definitely will not get a coronavirus vaccination. The survey, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that Republican, rural and Black Americans were among the most hesitant to be vaccinated.

Nevertheless, confidence in the vaccine appears to be rising. Over all, 71 percent of respondents said they definitely would get a vaccination, an 8 percent increase from what Kaiser found in a September survey. Roughly a third (34 percent) now want the vaccine as soon as possible. A recent study from Pew Research showed that about 60 percent of Americans would definitely or probably get a vaccine, up from 51 percent of people asked in September.

Looking ahead to spring

While the majority of Americans won’t get their shots until spring, the vaccine rollout is a hopeful sign of better days ahead. We asked Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, as well as several epidemiologists and health and science writers for The Times, for their predictions about the months ahead. Here’s some of what they had to say.

When can we go to the movies or the theater?

“It depends on the uptake of the vaccine and the level of infection in the community. If you go to April, May, June and you really put on a full-court press and try to vaccinate everybody within a period of a few months, as you go from second to third quarter of the year, then you could likely go to movies, go to theaters, do what you want. However, it’s unlikely, given what we’re hearing about people’s desire to get vaccinated, that we’re going to have that degree of uptake. If it turns out that only 50 percent get vaccinated, then it’s going to take much, much longer to get back to the kind of normality that we’d like to see.” — Dr. Fauci

What did you learn from pandemic life?

“Staying home with my children has taught me that life with fewer errands to run and activities to partake in is kind of nice. I think in the future we will cut down on our family obligations.” — Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor, Johns Hopkins

What’s one thing you’ll never take for granted again?

“I won’t take traveling to my extended family for granted.” — Alicia Allen, assistant professor, University of Arizona

Will we ever go to a big, crowded, indoor party without a mask again?

“If the level of infection in the community seems substantial, you’re not going to have the parties with friends in congregant settings. If the level of infection is so low that risk is minuscule, you’re going to see back to the normal congregating together, having parties, doing that. If we want to get back to normal it gets back to my message: When the vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated.” — Dr. Fauci


Contributors: Sara Aridi, Quoctrung Bui, Abby Goodnough, David Leonhardt, Apoorva Mandavilli, Donald G. McNeil Jr., Claire Cain Miller, Yuliya Parshina-KottasRoni Caryn Rabin, Margot Sanger-Katz, Amy Schoenfeld Walker, Noah Weiland, Jeremy White Katherine J. Wu and Carl Zimmer

New Scan Finds Prostate Cancer Cells Hiding in the Body

New Scan Finds Prostate Cancer Cells Hiding in the Body

The test seems likely to improve the diagnosis and treatment of a disease that kills 33,000 American men each year.

Dr. Mark Samberg, a retired urologist in Sacramento, learned his cancer had spread beyond his prostate with a new scan that finds radioactively tagged cancer cells in the body. 
Dr. Mark Samberg, a retired urologist in Sacramento, learned his cancer had spread beyond his prostate with a new scan that finds radioactively tagged cancer cells in the body. Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Gina Kolata

  • Dec. 16, 2020, 2:08 p.m. ET

After doctors found cancer in Dr. Mark Samberg’s prostate last spring, the 70-year-old retired urologist prepared to have his prostate removed. He knew that the surgery would cure him, assuming the cancer was confined to the organ.

But his doctors had a nagging concern — the cancer cells seen on the biopsy were aggressive and may already have escaped from his prostate. If so, the operation would not cure him. The problem for Dr. Samberg, and for many men with aggressive prostate cancer, was this: If there are cancer cells outside the prostate, how can they be found?

Now the Food and Drug Administration has approved a test that can locate prostate cancer cells wherever they are. Exuberant cancer specialists said the test would alter treatment for patients nationwide.

“It’s the most exciting thing in prostate cancer in my lifetime,” said Dr. Kirsten Greene, chair of the urology department at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

The test relies on a radioactive tag attached to a molecule that homes in on prostate cancer cells that have spread to other locations in the body and may seed new tumors. Once tagged, the clusters of cells appear as bright spots on PET scans.

At the moment, the F.D.A.’s approval applies only to testing at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Los Angeles, which conducted clinical trials. But several companies hope to market similar tests soon.

“It’s absolutely fabulous,” said Dr. Oliver Sartor, professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. When he learned that the test had been approved, he said, he danced in his office “and had a toast of imaginary champagne.”

Now specialists are hoping to use the technique to kill cancer cells, not just find them. The idea is to attach a radioactive drug to the molecule that seeks out prostate cancer cells. The molecule will deliver the drug directly to those cells and, it is hoped, the radiation will destroy the cancer. Experiments already have begun at U.C.S.F. and U.C.L.A.

The road to the new test has been long. Nearly 30 years ago, researchers discovered that prostate cancer cells carry a unique protein on their surfaces called prostate specific membrane antigen, or P.S.M.A. More recently, researchers found small molecules that could home in on P.S.M.A.

Scientists theorized that radioactive tracers attached to those molecules could make prostate cancer cells visible on PET scans. In 2010, researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany published the first images of prostate cancer cells located in this way.

Over the past four years, studies involving about 1,000 patients by Dr. Jeremie Calais, a nuclear medicine physician at U.C.L.A., and Dr. Thomas Hope, a nuclear medicine physician at U.C.S.F., showed that the scan accurately detected prostate cancer cells anywhere in the body before treatment and even after treatment, when cancer may recur.

The research led to changes in treatment for most patients, including decisions to recommend targeted radiation, guided by the scans, rather than chemotherapy or androgen-blocking therapy, treatments that impact the entire body.

Dr. Hope described two situations in which the PET scans can transform treatment decisions.

Most men learn they have prostate cancer when a simple blood test finds high levels of prostate specific antigen, or P.S.A. The next step is a biopsy of the prostate and removal of cancer cells for examination to see how aggressive they appear.

Men often have MRI scans to see if the capsule surrounding the prostate has been breached — a sign the cancer has gotten out. And doctors consider how high P.S.A. levels are. The higher they are, the more cancer in the body and the more likely it has spread.

The second scenario occurs after a man has had his prostate removed or destroyed by radiation. If the patient’s P.S.A. levels start to rise months or years later, the cancer that doctors thought they had cured had already seeded itself elsewhere in the man’s body.

In both situations, “we know they have disease, but we don’t know where it is,” Dr. Hope said. The new scan seems able to show doctors where to look. The researchers are now conducting studies to see if these treatment revisions ultimately prolong patients’ lives.

Dr. Samberg, who lives in Sacramento, was one of the participants in the U.C.S.F. trial. Before his scheduled prostatectomy, the scan turned up cancerous cells in his bones and lymph nodes. “That was shocking,” he said.

Without the new test, the doctors would have removed Dr. Samberg’s prostate, and they would have realized he still had cancer when his P.S.A. levels began to rise. In such a case, doctors usually irradiate the area where the prostate used to be — the prostate bed, which is the site of remaining cancers a bit more than half the time.

For Dr. Samberg, that procedure, like the prostatectomy, would not have helped. “Standard therapy for me would fail,” he said. Instead, the discovery that his cancer was in his bones and lymph nodes pointed to targeted radiation therapy, hormonal therapy and, most recently, immunotherapy.

“I am in complete remission,” Dr. Samberg said. “I hope it makes a difference long term.”

Covid Testing: What You Need to Know

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What You Need to Know About Getting Tested for Coronavirus

Long lines, slow results and inconsistent advice have left many of us confused about when and how to get tested. We talked to the experts to answer your questions.

Dec. 9, 2020

Testing is essential to controlling the coronavirus. Once people know they are infected, they can isolate, alert others of the risk and stop the spread.

But months into the pandemic, many people still are frustrated and confused about virus testing. Long lines at testing sites, delays in getting results and even surprise testing bills have discouraged some people from getting tested. Many people don’t understand what a test can and can’t tell you about your risk — and wrongly think a test result that comes back negative guarantees they can’t spread the virus to others.

We asked some of the nation’s leading experts on testing to help answer common questions about how to get tested, what to expect and what the different tests and results really mean. Here’s their advice.

When should I be tested for coronavirus?

Ideally, you should be able to get a coronavirus test whenever you want it. But in the United States, test availability varies around the country. In some places, you still need a doctor’s prescription to get tested. In other communities, you can get tested easily by walking in to a clinic or even using a home test kit. There are four main reasons to get a test.

Symptoms: Feeling sick is the most urgent reason to get tested. A dry cough, fatigue, headache, fever or loss of sense of smell are some of the common symptoms of Covid-19. (Use this symptom guide to learn more.) While you’re waiting for your results, stay isolated from others and alert the people you’ve spent time with over the last few days, so they can take precautions. Many tests are most reliable during the first week you have symptoms.

Exposure: Did you find out that you recently spent time with an infected person? Were you in a risky situation, like an indoor gathering, or a large event or in an airport and airplane? You should quarantine and get tested. If testing isn’t widely available and you have only one chance to take a test, it’s best to get tested five to six days after a potential exposure to give the virus the opportunity to build up to detectable levels in the body. Test too early, and you might get a false negative result. If you’re in a city where it’s easy to get a test, get tested a few days after the exposure and, if it’s negative, get tested again in three or four days. If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises you quarantine for at least seven days and receive a negative test result before returning to normal activity.

Precautions: Some people get tested as a safeguard. Hospitals may require you to be tested before certain invasive medical procedures or surgery. Visitors to nursing homes may be given a rapid test before they are allowed to enter. Many colleges and boarding schools test students frequently and suggest they be tested before leaving campus and when they return. If you must travel, it’s a good idea to be tested before you leave, and a few days after you arrive. A negative test result is never a free pass to mingle with others, but knowing your infection status will lower the chance that you are unknowingly spreading the virus. Check on the turnaround time at the testing site in your area, and try to time it so you get a result as close as possible to the event or visit. Even if your test result is negative, you still need to wear a mask, maintain distance from others and take other precautions.

Community testing: In some cases, local health officials will encourage widespread testing for everyone, offering tests at health clinics, pharmacies and drive-through testing sites. Testing lots of people helps measure the level of spread in an area and can help slow or stop the spread in areas where known infections have occurred. In New York City, for instance, a health department advertising campaign is encouraging people to be tested often, even if they feel fine. “We learned that one of the ways we can control this virus effectively is by making sure as many people as possible are tested at a given time, so we can pick up people who are infected but don’t yet know they have the infection,” said Dr. Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Health Department.

What type of test should I get?

Virus tests are categorized based on what they look for: molecular tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material, and antigen tests that look for viral proteins. The various tests all use a sample collected from the nose, throat or mouth that may be sent away to a lab or processed within minutes. Testing should be free or paid for by your insurance, although some testing centers are adding extra charges. Here are the common tests and some of the pros and cons of each.

Laboratory molecular test: The most widely available test, and the one most people get, is the P.C.R., or polymerase chain reaction, test, a technique that looks for bits of the virus’s genetic material — similar to a detective looking for DNA at a crime scene.

Pros: This test is considered the gold standard of coronavirus testing because of its ability to detect even very small amounts of viral material. A positive result from a P.C.R. test almost certainly means you’re infected with the virus.

Cons: Because these tests have to go through a laboratory, the typical turnaround time is one to three days, though it can take 10 days or longer to get results, which can limit this test’s usefulness, since you may be spreading virus during the waiting period. Like all coronavirus tests, a P.C.R. test can return a false negative result during the first few days of infection because the virus hasn’t reached detectable levels. (One study showed that among people who underwent P.C.R. testing three days after symptoms began, 20 percent still showed a false negative.) Another frustration of P.C.R. testing is that it sometimes detects the virus’s leftover genetic material weeks after a person has recovered and is no longer contagious. The tests are also expensive, costing hospitals and insurers $50 to $150 per test.

Rapid antigen test: An antigen test hunts for pieces of coronavirus proteins. Some antigen tests work sort of like a pregnancy test — if virus antigens are detected in the sample, a line on a paper test strip turns dark.

Pros: Antigen tests are among the cheapest (as little as $5) and speediest tests out there, and can deliver results in about 15 to 30 minutes. Some college campuses and nursing homes are using rapid tests to check people almost daily, catching many infectious people before they spread the virus. Antigen tests work best when given a few times over a week rather than just once. “It tells you, am I a risk to my family right now? Am I spreading the virus right now?” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and a proponent of widespread rapid testing. Though, he cautioned, “if the test is negative, it doesn’t tell you if you’re infectious tomorrow or if you were infectious last week.”

Cons: An antigen test is less likely than P.C.R. to find the virus early in the course of the infection. One worry is that a negative rapid test result will be seen as a free pass for reckless behavior — like not wearing a mask or attending an indoor gathering. (The White House Rose Garden event is a good example of how rapid testing can create a false sense of security.) A negative antigen test won’t tell you for sure that you don’t have the coronavirus — it only tells you that no antigens were detected, so you’re probably not highly infectious today. (In one study, a rapid antigen test missed 20 percent of coronavirus infections found by a slower, lab-based P.C.R. test.) Antigen tests also have a higher rate of false positive results, so a positive rapid test should be confirmed.

Rapid molecular test. Some tests combine the reliability of molecular testing with the speedy results of a rapid test. Abbott’s ID Now and the Cepheid Xpert Xpress rely on a portable device that can process a molecular test right in front of you in a matter of minutes.

Pros: These tests are speedy and highly sensitive, and they can identify those exposed to coronavirus about a day sooner in the course of an infection than a rapid antigen test. A rapid molecular test isn’t quite as accurate as the laboratory version, but you’ll get the result much fast

Cons: Depending on where you live, rapid molecular tests might not be widely available. They are also less convenient and often slower than many antigen tests. And like all coronavirus tests, a negative result isn’t a guarantee you don’t have the virus, so you’ll still need to take precautions. Like its laboratory cousin, a rapid molecular test can detect leftover genetic material from the virus even after you’ve recovered.

What happens during a coronavirus test?

Some tests require a health care worker to collect a sample through the patient’s nose or mouth. Other tests allow patients to use a swab or spit to collect their own samples.

  • Nose swab: Many tests collect a sample via the nose. The most reliable sampling method uses a nasopharyngeal swab — a long, flexible stick with absorbent material on the end — that is inserted deep into your nasal cavity until it reaches the upper part of your throat. A trained health worker must perform nasopharyngeal swab tests. A more comfortable method inserts a swab about a half-inch into one nostril and twists and rubs the swab on the inside of your nose for about 15 seconds. Less invasive nose swabs like these can often be self-administered.

  • Mouth swab: In some cases, you may be asked to say “ahh” as the swab is used to collect a sample from the back of your throat, similar to a common test for strep throat. Another method gathers fluids from your mouth by swabbing the cheeks, gums or tongue.

  • Saliva sample: One collection method requires the patient to drool into a test tube. There are no swabs involved, and people taking the test can collect their own saliva, making the procedure safer for health workers who don’t have to get near someone who might be infected.

What happens next? For laboratory tests, the sample is packaged, usually in a chemical soup that keeps it from degrading, and shipped to a facility that can process it. For a rapid test, the sample can be processed immediately, and the results given in a matter of minutes.

How do I get a test? How long will it take?

Roughly 2 million coronavirus tests are run in the United States every day. But testing availability varies considerably from state to state, even city to city. Tests are generally less available in rural areas or in communities where cases have surged and medical and laboratory resources are stretched.

The best way to find out about testing in your community is to check your local public health department website or call your doctor or a local urgent care clinic. Some cities and towns have also set up drive-in community testing sites. If your doctor or local public health clinic offers rapid testing, you usually can get the result in 15 to 30 minutes. But a positive rapid result might need to be confirmed by an additional test, especially if you don’t have symptoms.

In some communities, it can still be difficult to get the results of a laboratory P.C.R. test quickly. A survey from Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School found that this fall, patients had to wait days just to schedule a test and even more time to get results. On average it’s been taking six or seven days after symptoms start to find out if you have the virus, and by then most people are on their way to recovery, making the test pretty useless. (In some parts of the country, people have had to wait as long as two weeks to get test results.) The research also found that Black patients, on average, had to wait almost two days longer to get results than white patients.

Testing turnaround times are improving in some cities. In New York City, for instance, you can get a P.C.R. laboratory test result in about a day. If rapid testing is available in your area, you can get the result in minutes, but rapid tests work best when taken a few times over the course of a week.

What do the results mean for me?

A virus test can produce one of three results: positive (or virus detected), negative (or virus not detected) or inconclusive. Here’s what the results really mean.

Positive: A positive test result means you should continue to stay home and isolate, and alert people you spent time with over the past few days. If you feel sick, contact your primary care doctor for guidance, and monitor your symptoms at home, seeking medical attention when needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that you still should wait at least 10 days after symptoms started, and go 24 hours without a fever, before ending isolation. For some people who are severely ill, this timeline might be longer.

Negative: If your test result is negative, it’s reassuring, but it’s not a free pass. You still need to wear a mask and restrict social contacts. False negatives happen and could mean that the virus just hasn’t reached detectable levels. (It’s similar to taking a pregnancy test too early: You’re still pregnant, but your body hasn’t created enough pregnancy hormones to be detected by the test.)

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,” said Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago, where she specializes in infectious disease diagnostics. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

Inconclusive: Sometimes a test comes back inconclusive because the sample was inadequate or damaged, or a sample can get lost. You can get retested but, depending on how much time has passed, it might be easier to just finish 10 days of quarantine. If you are sick but receive a negative or inconclusive test, you should consult your health care provider.

If I get tested, can I see my family for the holidays?

Sorry, but a negative test does not mean you can safely visit another household or travel for the holiday to see friends and family. A lot can go wrong between the time you took the test and the moment you hug a family member. False negatives are common with coronavirus testing — whether it’s a laboratory P.C.R. test or a rapid antigen test — because it takes time for the virus to build up to detectable levels in your body. It’s also possible that you weren’t infected with the virus when you took the test, but you got infected while you were waiting for the results. And then consider the risk of catching the virus in an airport, on a plane or from a taxi driver or rental car agent — and you may end up bringing the virus home with you for the holidays.

“I don’t want somebody to have a negative test and think they can go visit grandma,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Despite these limits, if you feel you must travel, it’s a good idea to get tested. If you’re using rapid testing, try to take more than one test over the days leading up to your visit, including a test on the day you plan to see a vulnerable person. If you’re getting a laboratory test, check the turnaround time and try to schedule it as close as possible to your visit. While the test doesn’t guarantee you’re not infected, a negative result will lower the odds that you’ll be spreading the virus. And, of course, a positive test tells you that you should cancel your plans. A test “filters out those who are positive and definitely shouldn’t be there,” said Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency medicine physician and a professor at Oregon Health and Science University. “Testing negative basically changes nothing about behavior. It still means wear a mask, distance, avoid indoors if you can.”

Is home testing an option? Is it reliable?

Communities around the country, including in California, Minnesota and New Jersey, are starting to roll out home testing kits. The cost typically is covered by the government if it’s not covered by your personal insurance. To find out if home testing is available in your area, check your state or local health department website or ask your doctor.

Two types of home tests are currently available. Several companies offer customers the option of spitting in a test tube at home, and then shipping the sample to a laboratory for processing. Results are delivered electronically in a day or two.

In November, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency green light for the first completely at-home coronavirus test, made by Lucira. The Lucira test kit allows a person to swirl a swab in both nostrils, stir it into a vial, and use a battery-powered device to process the test and get a result in 30 minutes. The test kit requires a prescription and is not yet widely available. Several companies have rapid home tests in development but still need F.D.A. approval.

Some experts are concerned that widespread home testing is impractical. Even if a new generation of home tests is approved, they question whether people would use the tests correctly or as frequently as recommended, and whether they would isolate if they test positive. But home testing also has several prominent supporters, among them Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert. Dr. Fauci notes that home tests — from home pregnancy tests to home H.I.V. tests — have long prompted skepticism, and that when home H.I.V. test kits were first developed, many experts worried that people would become despondent if they got a positive result while home alone and act brashly. “That’s a standard pushback against home tests,” he said.

But Dr. Fauci and other proponents of home testing say that simple, cheap home kits could allow people to take daily tests before going to work in an office, grocery store or restaurant or before going to school (although it’s still not clear how well the tests work in children). Rapid testing at home a few days a week could potentially identify an infection even before a person develops symptoms.

“I have been pushing for that,” Dr. Fauci said. “I think home testing is the same as a pregnancy test and should be available to people. As long as there is some Covid around, then I think a home test would be useful.”

Should I get an antibody test?

This blood test is designed to detect antibodies that signal you were infected with coronavirus in the past, but shouldn’t be used to diagnose a current infection. It can take one to three weeks after infection for your body to begin producing antibodies. Blood is taken by pricking the finger or drawing blood from your arm through a needle. You can get the test through a doctor’s office, many urgent care clinics or a local public health clinic. You may be offered a free antibody test when you donate blood as well. The waiting time for results varies from a few days to two weeks.

Pros: An antibody test can tell you if you were infected with coronavirus in the past. But experts warn against assuming too much about what a positive result says about immunity to the virus. Scientists generally agree that the presence of antibodies most likely indicates some level of protection, but they don’t know to what extent or for how long. Although reinfections are thought to be rare, they have occurred, and experts stress that a positive result on an antibody test should not give someone a free pass to shirk masks or mingle with others.

Cons: Many antibody tests are inaccurate, some look for the wrong antibodies, and even the right antibodies can fade over time. Some tests are notorious for delivering false positives — indicating that people have antibodies when they do not. These tests may also produce false negative results, missing antibodies that are present at low levels. An antibody test should not be used by itself to determine whether a person is currently infected.

If you do decide to get an antibody test, the result should not change your behavior. You still need to take all public health precautions and assume that you can still contract or spread the virus. If you know you had the coronavirus, and it was confirmed by a diagnostic test at the time you were ill, you may be eligible to donate convalescent plasma, which can potentially help patients still suffering from Covid-19, who can get an infusion of your antibodies to accelerate their recovery time.

How much will virus testing cost me?

In most cases, your test for coronavirus should not cost you a dime. Congress passed laws requiring insurers to pay for tests, and the Trump administration created a program to cover the bills of the uninsured. Cities and states have set up no-cost testing sites.

However, some medical offices and private testing sites are adding extra charges or facility fees, so check in advance about the bill. A New York Times investigation by our colleague Sarah Kliff found that many people have been billed large, unexpected fees or denied insurance claims related to coronavirus tests, and they’ve faced bills ranging from a few dollars to more than $1,000.

To lower your chance of getting a surprise bill, she recommends the following precautions:

  • Get tested at a public testing site set up by your city, county or state health department. If a public test site isn’t an option where you live, you might consider your primary care doctor or a federally qualified health clinic.

  • Avoid getting tested at a hospital or free-standing emergency rooms. Those places often bill patients for something called a facility fee, which is the charge for stepping into the room and seeking service.

  • Ask ahead of time how you will be billed and what fees will be included. It can be as simple as saying: “I understand I’m having a coronavirus test. Are there any other services you’ll bill me for?”

  • If you don’t have insurance, ask ahead of time how providers handle uninsured patients. Ask if they are seeking reimbursement from the federal government’s provider relief fund or if they plan to bill you directly.

You can find more guidance in How to Avoid a Surprise Bill for Your Coronavirus Test. And if you have a coronavirus bill you want to share, submit it here.

What’s next for testing?

More than 200 tests for the coronavirus have been given emergency green lights by the F.D.A., with many more likely to come. Experts think some of the next wave of tests will include more products that can be self-administered from start to finish at home.

As the nation speeds toward the winter months, combination flu/coronavirus tests, which can search for both types of viruses at the same time, are likely to become increasingly common. Many of these tests are already available in doctors’ offices and clinics.

Researchers are also exploring other types of tests that might be able to measure other aspects of the immune response to the virus.

So what’s the bottom line?

More testing is needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The more testing we do and the faster we get the results back — whether it’s a P.C.R. test or a rapid test — the more information we have to make good choices and keep those around us safe. Tests are useful when used correctly, and when you know the limits of the information they give you. A positive test of any kind should keep you home and isolating. (If you have good reason to doubt the result, get tested again.)

A negative test is not a free pass to drop your mask and socialize in groups. It’s a snapshot in time. A negative P.C.R. test tells you that you were negative a few days ago when you took the test. A negative rapid antigen test tells you that you’re probably not infectious right now, but it’s better to take a few more tests over the next few days to be sure. In both cases it’s possible you still have the virus (just as it’s possible to get a negative pregnancy test and still be pregnant).

In general, if you have symptoms, your doctor will order a P.C.R. test to confirm if you have Covid-19. If you’re living on a college campus, or going to work in a factory or grocery store every day, frequent rapid testing can be a useful way to monitor your health regularly. Because testing has not been consistently available around the country, you may not have the option for getting either type of test quickly. Wearing a mask, maintaining your distance and restricting contact with people outside your household remain essential to stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

Produced by Jaspal Riyait

What You Need to Know About Getting Tested for Coronavirus

‘Nobody Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Workers Strain Under Demand

April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.
April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

‘Nobody Sees Us’: Testing-Lab Workers Strain Under Demand

Laboratory technologists have been working nonstop to help the nation diagnose an ever-growing number of coronavirus cases.

April Abbott, director of microbiology at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind., a mother of three who keeps a bed in her office for when her duties keep her overnight. “There is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

Katherine J. Wu

By

  • Dec. 3, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

In March, April Abbott dragged a hospital bed into her office at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Ind. In the nine months since, she has slept in it a half-dozen times while working overnight in her clinical microbiology laboratory, where a team of some 40 scientists toils around the clock running coronavirus tests.

These all-night stints in the lab pull Dr. Abbott, the director of microbiology at Deaconess, away from her husband and three children, the oldest of whom is 8. A couple of times a week, she heads home for dinner, then drives back to work after the kids have gone to bed. She is at the lab when machines break. She is there to vet testing protocols for the lab. She is there when new testing sites open, flooding the lab with more samples to process.

“I do it because there is always more work to be done than the hours to do it in,” she said.

Nearly a year into a pandemic that has claimed more than 272,000 American lives, some 192 million tests for the coronavirus have been processed nationwide. Millions more will be needed to detect and contain the virus in the months ahead. Behind these staggering figures are thousands of scientists who have been working nonstop to identify the coronavirus in the people it infects.

Across the nation, testing teams are grappling with burnout, repetitive-stress injuries and an overwhelming sense of doom. As supply chains sputter and laboratories rush to keep pace with diagnostic demand, experts warn that the most severe shortage stymieing America’s capacity to test is not one that can be solved by a wider production line or a more efficient machine. It is a dearth of human power: the dwindling ranks in a field that much of the public does not know even exists.

When shortages arise, “there’s workarounds for almost everything else,” said Karissa Culbreath, the medical director and infectious disease division chief at TriCore Reference Laboratories in New Mexico. “But people are irreplaceable.”

In the absence of trained workers to process and analyze the nation’s tests, America’s diagnostic infrastructure will not merely wrinkle and slow, experts said. It will collapse.

“Doctors and nurses are very visible, but we work behind the scenes,” said Marissa Larson, a medical laboratory scientist supervisor at the University of Kansas Health System. “And we are underwater.”

‘I don’t even know where to start’

Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, begins her shifts at 5:30 a.m. with a refrigerator of up to 500 tubes, trying to clear a backlog before another shipment arrives at 8 a.m.
Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, begins her shifts at 5:30 a.m. with a refrigerator of up to 500 tubes, trying to clear a backlog before another shipment arrives at 8 a.m.Credit…Matthew Staver for The New York Times

The gold standard in coronavirus diagnostics hinges on a decades-old laboratory method called polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R. The method is a signal amplifier: It can copy genetic material, including fragments of the genome of the coronavirus, over and over until it reaches detectable levels, making the virus discoverable even when it is extremely scarce in the body. P.C.R. is the metric against which all new testing techniques are compared; in the diagnostic landscape, few can match its ability to root out infection.

But such accuracy comes at a cost. Even highly automated forms of P.C.R. require people to handle tubes, babysit machines and scrutinize ambiguous results.

P.C.R.-based coronavirus tests also deal in DNA, the molecular language in which the human genome is written. The coronavirus, however, stores its genetic information in a close cousin called RNA, which must first be carefully extracted from virus particles, then converted to its more testable counterpart before diagnostics can proceed.

When laboratories are well stocked, P.C.R. diagnostics can run from start to finish in just a few hours. But since the spring, laboratories around the country have been hamstrung by severe, often unpredictable shortages of chemicals and plasticware needed for these protocols.

And caseloads have skyrocketed; America’s testing capacity has increased since March, but it has been vastly overtaken by the demand for tests.

“The spring pales in comparison to what we are experiencing now,” said Dr. Culbreath, of TriCore, which has run more than 600,000 coronavirus tests.

Amid the pandemonium, labs must still work through their queues for other infectious disease tests, including for sexually transmitted infections. “Labs are trying to maintain our standard of operation with everything else, with a pandemic on top of it,” Dr. Culbreath said.

Darcy Velasquez, a medical technologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, where cases continue to surge, is fighting to keep pace with some of her institution’s highest sample volumes yet. Her shifts in the lab begin at 5:30 a.m., sometimes to a double-door refrigerator already brimming with 500 tubes, each containing a fresh patient swab and a small volume of liquid — more than a full day’s work for one person.

Ms. Velasquez typically spends the first couple hours of her day frantically trying to clear as much of the backlog as she can before another batch arrives around 8 a.m., when the local clinic opens.

As much as an hour of that time might be spent simply de-swabbing samples: manually unscrewing and rescrewing caps and plucking out swabs, all without contaminating one sample with the contents of another.

“Sometimes you walk into these refrigerators full of specimens and you think, ‘I don’t even know where to start,’” Ms. Velasquez said.

Taylor Smith, a virologist and technologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, with her dog, Spunk.Credit…Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

At Georgia’s state public health laboratory, direct handling of patient samples must be done with extra safeguards to minimize the chances of exposing personnel to infectious virus. Taylor Smith, a virologist and technologist at the lab, spends a large fraction of her workday in a full-body gown, sleeve covers, two pairs of gloves, an N95 respirator and goggles.

Simply donning it all is exhausting. And although Ms. Smith has long been deft with lab instruments, the work always feels high-stakes, she said: “You’re constantly thinking about how to not contaminate yourself.”

To keep their experiments running, lab workers must be proficient mechanics. The instruments needed for diagnostic tests were not built to run continuously for months on end. But as more facilities transition to 24/7 testing, malfunctions and breakdowns have become more common, requiring people to fix them.

Tyler Murray, a clinical laboratory scientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, spends his days listening for telltale alarms — a sign that one of his instruments has failed or is low on chemical ingredients.

“I make sure I talk nicely to them,” Mr. Murray said of the lab’s machines, which he decorates with gleaming gold stars when they perform at their best. “I say, ‘Hey bud, you worked hard this week, I’m proud of you.’”

But morale is low among the humans. After 10-hour shifts at U.T.M.B., Mr. Murray heads home and lies on the floor beside his two cats, Arya and Cleo. “The fatigue builds,” he said. “You can’t help but feel it.”

Tyler Murray, a clinical laboratory scientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, with Cleo, one of his two cats.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

The invisible work force

The monotonous motions that lab workers engage in daily take a physical and mental toll. Technologists are nursing repetitive-use injuries, a result of hours of maneuvering tubes and pipettes, which take up and dispense liquids with the press of a plunger. Workers must also be vigilant sanitizers, pausing regularly to swap out soiled gloves, clear their workspaces of plastic debris and scour surfaces with harsh chemicals that leave their clothes freckled with stains.

“We’re accustomed to holding things up in the background,” said Natalie Williams-Bouyer, the director of the division of clinical microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “We enjoy doing it because we know we’re helping people.”

But the enduring anonymity of testing labs has begun to splinter some spirits. Elizabeth Stoeppler, a senior medical technologist in the molecular microbiology lab at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, said that an old volleyball injury, which inflamed a tendon in her elbow years ago, had flared up after months of long stints in the lab. A few of her co-workers are wrestling with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The strain has begun to affect Ms. Stoeppler outside of the lab. She bolts awake at 3 a.m., panicked about the previous day’s work. She recently started a prescription medication to improve her chances of getting a full night’s sleep.

“There’s signs everywhere that say, ‘Heroes work here,’” she said of her hospital. She loves her job, she added. “But nobody sees us. We’re just in the basement, or in the back.”

On a good day in a diagnostics lab, the phone might ring only a few times, with messages from clinicians inquiring about samples. But when “things are going poorly, it just rings off the hook,” said Rachael Liesman, the director of clinical microbiology at the University of Kansas Health System, where she frequently clocks 15-hour shifts.

To keep the lab on track, Dr. Liesman has put in some hours running tests herself — a task that is not a part of her normal job description. “It’s very strange to have your director on the bench,” said Ms. Larson, a supervisor in the lab. “When you see that, some flare guns should be going up.”

Marissa Larson, left, a medical laboratory scientist supervisor at the University of Kansas Health System, and Rachael Liesman, its director of clinical microbiology.Credit…Barrett Emke for The New York Times

In mid-November, Dr. Liesman’s lab suffered a three-day stretch during which a supply of chemicals nearly ran dry on a Friday, then a pair of machines failed on Saturday and Sunday.

“We were basically drowning in specimens” by Monday, she said. “I was paged by three different providers while brushing my teeth.”

Morale in the labs has flagged as the country continues to shatter records for caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths. The nation’s testing experts know these statistics better than anyone: They count the numbers themselves, sample by sample. But they are also easy targets of criticism and complaint.

“There is always this undercurrent of, it’s never good enough,” said Dr. Abbott, of Deaconess Hospital in Indiana. “It’s devastating. We’re working as hard as we can.”

Chelsa Ashley, a medical laboratory scientist at Deaconess, aches to be home with her three children, to whom she is a single mother, after 13-hour shifts in the lab. Once there, she struggles to leave her work behind.

“There’s that panicked feeling that I should have stayed to take care of our community samples,” she said. “There’s guilt, when you walk away.”

In the past few months, Ms. Ashley’s children, who are 18, 13 and 10, have had to become substantially more self-sufficient. Shaylan, her youngest, rouses herself from bed at 5:50 a.m. every day to spend a few moments with her mother before she heads off to work.

“Even if it’s only 10 minutes, it’s 10 minutes that we talk,” Ms. Ashley said. “That is one thing that has not changed.”

‘A dying breed’

For some, the tidal wave of stress brought on by the pandemic has proved untenable. Since March, scientists have trickled out of laboratories, leaving chasms of expertise in a field that for years has struggled to recruit fresh talent.

Joanne Bartkus, the former director of the Minnesota Department of Public Health Laboratory, retired from her position in May after a dozen years on the job. She pinned one of the pandemic’s crucial inflection points to March 6, the day President Trump publicly remarked that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.”

“That was when the poop hit the fan,” Dr. Bartkus said. Within about a week, her team went from receiving fewer than a dozen coronavirus testing samples each day to being inundated with roughly 1,000 daily specimens.

It was unlike anything Dr. Bartkus had seen in her years at the institution. In 2009, the year of the H1N1 flu pandemic, Minnesota’s public health laboratory tested about 6,000 patient samples. This spring, it broke that record in a couple of weeks.

Dr. Bartkus, who is 65, had already planned to retire before the year was up. By the time April came, she had hastened her timeline to May: “It didn’t take me long before I said, ‘OK, I’m done with this.’”

In interviews, several scientists noted that they were struggling to fill vacancies in their labs, some that were left open by overwhelmed technologists who had recently quit their jobs. While the need for such workers has grown in recent years, the number of training programs that build these skill sets has dropped.

“Medical technologists are a dying breed,” Ms. Stoeppler, of the University of North Carolina, said.

Natalie Williams-Bouyer, the director of the division of clinical microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “I hope people can see us now,” she said.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

In Indiana, Dr. Abbott, of Deaconess Hospital, said her team had already performed more than 100,000 tests for the coronavirus. But the most chaotic months are most likely still ahead.

For the first time in nine years, Dr. Abbott is doing hands-on work in the lab to help her staff cope with rising demand. She has yet to take more than a day off at a time since the pandemic’s start, but insists that she can soldier on: “This is out of the sheer will of not wanting to be beaten by this pandemic.”

In the mini-refrigerator in her office, next to rotating bags of salad greens and a small cavalry of Diet Cokes, sits an unopened bottle of champagne that she purchased in March, intending to uncork it upon reaching a worthy testing milestone. Nothing has yet felt like enough.

“I can’t tell you what will feel like a reason to celebrate at this point,” Dr. Abbott said. “Ask me after the next 100,000 tests.”

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Despite Pandemic Shutdowns, Cancer Doesn’t Take a Break

While a raging pandemic continues to force shutdowns and slowdowns throughout the country, another major risk to human health is not taking a sabbatical: cancer.

In the early months of the pandemic, millions of people heeded warnings and fears about contracting the coronavirus and avoided, or couldn’t even get, in-person medical visits and cancer screenings, allowing newly developed cancers to escape detection and perhaps progress unimpeded.

During this time, there was a steep decline in screenings for cancer, as well as a reluctance of patients with cancer to participate in clinical trials for cancer treatments. Many mammography centers, dermatology offices and other venues for cancer screenings remained closed for months, and routine colonoscopies, which should be done in hospitals or surgical centers, were actively discouraged to minimize strain on medical personnel and equipment and reduce the risk of contagion.

Still, Dr. Norman E. Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, warned in June that missed routine screenings could lead to 10,000 or more excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancers within the next decade.

Cancers cannot be treated unless they’re detected, and a review of 34 studies published in October in the BMJ reported that for every four-week delay in cancer detection and treatment, the risk of death from cancer rises nearly 10 percent, on average. The study found increased mortality following delays in treatment for 13 of 17 cancer types. Following a four-week delay in surgery for breast cancer, the death rate increased by 8 percent; for colorectal cancer, it rose 6 percent.

The hazard of delayed screenings is greatest for people with known risk factors for cancer: a family or personal history of the disease, a previous abnormal Pap smear, prior findings of polyps in the colon or rectum, or, in the case of breast and certain other cancers, having genetic mutations that seriously increase cancer risk.

Most screening facilities have since put safety procedures in place that greatly reduce the chance of contracting the coronavirus, both for staff and patients. Although I had postponed my annual mammogram for four months, when I did go in September I was impressed with how well the facility was run — no one else in the waiting room, everyone masked and hand sanitizer everywhere.

Dr. Barry P. Sleckman, director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in an interview, “When it comes to screening for cancer, people should balance the possibility of contracting the virus with their potential cancer risk. People should do everything possible to keep up with cancer screenings.”

However, Dr. Sleckman added, “If a woman is young and has no family history of breast cancer, she can probably wait six months for her next screening mammogram.” He also suggested discussing the matter with one’s personal physician, who probably also knows the safest facilities for screening.

If someone is found to have cancer, he emphasized, “There’s no reason to delay treatment. If a woman has cancer in a breast, it needs to be removed, and she should go to a hospital where she can be treated safely.”

Dr. David E. Cohn, chief medical officer at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said that in the early months of the pandemic “we experienced a significant decline in new patients. Even some patients with symptoms were afraid to come in or couldn’t even see their doctors because the offices were closed. This could result in a delayed diagnosis, more complex care and potentially a worse outcome.”

But he said his center has since returned to baseline, suggesting that, despite the fall’s surge in Covid-19 cases, few cancer patients now remain undiagnosed and untreated.

“We made creative adaptations to Covid” to maximize patient safety, Dr. Cohn said in an interview. “For certain cancers, instead of doing surgery upfront, we treated patients with radiation and chemotherapy first, then did surgery later” when there was less stress on hospital facilities and personnel and patients could be better protected against the virus.

Dr. Cohn said that certain kinds of supportive care can be delivered remotely to cancer patients and their families — even genetic counseling, if a DNA sample is sent in. However, he added, “the majority of cancer treatment has to be administered in person, and surveillance of cancer patients is best done in face-to-face visits.”

Now with the virus surging around the country, many medical centers may be forced to again limit elective procedures, those not deemed urgent. But, Dr. Sleckman said, “Cancer treatment is not elective — it’s urgent and should not be delayed.”

Learning that one has cancer, even when it is early and potentially highly curable, is likely to strain a person’s ability to cope with adversity, all the more so when the diagnosis occurs in the midst of an already highly stressful and frightening pandemic.

Kristen Carpenter, a psychologist at the Ohio cancer center, said the constraints of the pandemic are “using up a lot of people’s reserve for dealing with adversity.” Adding a cancer diagnosis on top of that may initially cause people to fear they can’t deal with it, she said in an interview.

But it is nearly always possible to make more room in a person’s “bucket of reserve,” she said, for example, by identifying things that bring joy or a sense of accomplishment. Even though the pandemic may preclude great joys, Dr. Carpenter said, “people can create a constellation of smaller joys, for example, by reading a book, taking a walk or even a long shower. A little goes a long way to relieve the stresses of the day and build up the reserve needed to help you deal with the cancer.”

Noting that many people have found new ways to interact with others during the pandemic, “this is all the more important to do in the face of cancer,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Remember, you’re not just your cancer. You’re a whole person experiencing something. Take time to identify your needs and tell people what they are — don’t wait for them to ask.”

This advice is especially critical to cancer patients whose disease or treatment has compromised their immunity, leaving them especially vulnerable to infection by the coronavirus. A friend with chronic lymphoma who must avoid in-person contact with her five young grandchildren visits them through a glass door and observes their delight in retrieving the little treats she leaves for them on her porch.

Think, too, of how you’ve faced difficulties in the past, “how you’ve adapted to things you previously believed to be unimaginably difficult,” Dr. Carpenter suggested. Resiliency in the face of cancer during Covid need not have a limit, she said.

Should Isolation Periods Be Shorter for People With Covid-19?

People with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, are most infectious about two days before symptoms begin and for five days afterward, according to a new analysis of previous research.

A few patients who are extremely ill or have impaired immune systems may expel — or “shed” — the virus for as long as 20 days, other studies have suggested. Even in mild cases, some patients may shed live virus for about a week, the new analysis found.

The accumulating data presents a quandary: Should public health officials shorten the recommended isolation time if it means more infected people will cooperate? Or should officials opt for longer periods in order to prevent transmission in virtually all cases, even if doing so takes a harsher toll on the economy?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that infected people isolate for a minimum of 10 days from the beginning of their illness. The agency is considering shortening the recommended isolation period and may issue new guidelines as early as next week, according to two federal officials with knowledge of the discussions.

In September, France dropped its required period of isolation to seven days from 14 days, and Germany is considering shortening it to five days. (Isolation refers to people who are ill; quarantine refers to people who have been exposed to the virus and may become ill.)

Setting the isolation period at five days is likely to be much more palatable and may encourage more infected people to comply, said Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews in Scotland who led the new analysis, published in the journal The Lancet Microbe.

A recent survey in the United Kingdom showed that only one in five people were able to isolate for 10 days after developing symptoms. “Even if we do more testing, if we can’t ensure people self-isolate, I don’t think we’ll be able to control the spread,” Dr. Cevik said.

In the United States, many people don’t get tested for the infection until a day or two after they begin to feel ill. With the current delays, many receive results two or three days later, toward the end of the period during which they are infectious.

“Even if you were to get the P.C.R. test right on the very first day that you could, by the time you get the results back, 90 percent of your shedding has been completed,” said Dr. Michael Mina, a virologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This meta-analysis shows just how short your transmission window is.”

Dr. Cevik and her colleagues set out to analyze the so-called kinetics of the coronavirus over the course of an infection, and to compare the pathogen to the closely related SARS and MERS viruses.

The researchers considered nearly 1,500 studies published from 2003 to June 2020 on the timing of infection in thousands of people, most of whom were sick enough to be hospitalized. The team drew data from 79 studies of the new coronavirus, 11 studies of MERS and eight studies of SARS.

People who never develop symptoms seem to carry about the same amount of the new coronavirus as symptomatic patients, Dr. Cevik and her colleagues found. But asymptomatic people seem to clear the virus more quickly from their bodies.

People with Covid-19 usually are most infectious a day or two before the onset of symptoms until about five days after, the analysis concluded. Yet patients may carry genetic fragments from the virus in their noses and throats for an average of 17 days, and, in some cases, for up to three months.

A few patients may carry infectious virus in their lungs — as opposed to the nose and throat — for as long as eight days after symptoms begin, noted Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University. For these patients, at least, isolation periods should probably be longer than five days, if only they could be identified.

“The trouble is, who has Covid pneumonia versus who doesn’t is not always fully apparent just based on physical exam,” she said. “They wouldn’t know it on their own.”

Older people tend to be infectious for longer than younger people, but no study in the analysis detected live virus beyond nine days of symptom onset. The results suggest that positive tests after that point find only genetic fragments, rather than whole live virus, Dr. Cevik said.

Because the infectious period seems to peak relatively quickly in the course of the illness, health care workers at community clinics may be at higher risk of becoming infected than those working in I.C.U. units, where patients tend to be in the later stages, Dr. Cevik added.

The analysis underscores data that have accumulated since March. In July, based on similar evidence, the C.D.C. truncated its recommendation for isolation to 10 days from 14 days.

But even at 10 days, the isolation period may be too long for many people, experts said. Patients may be financially unable to isolate for so long, or they may not feel sick enough to want to do so.

“If you could make that shorter for people, I think that would really help people comply with the public health guidelines,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, referring to the recommended isolation period.

But the new analysis is limited by the fact that only a few of the included studies looked at live virus, she added.

Some people who are older or very sick may be infectious for longer than a week. But if a shorter recommended period encourages more people to isolate, the benefit will more than offset any risk to the community from the small amount of virus that a few patients may still carry after five days, said Dr. Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

But some doctors said that they were not convinced by the analysis that five days of isolation would prevent transmission from a majority of people.

“There’s a sweet spot there, I would imagine, but I haven’t figured out where that is,” said Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care and infectious disease physician at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Cevik and other experts suggest that people can isolate as soon as they experience even mild symptoms, such as a sore throat or head and body aches — without venturing out for a P.C.R. test right when they are most infectious.

But Dr. Bell said he was unsure how this would work in practice, because these early symptoms were similar to those from other viral infections, including the common cold.

Dr. Cevik said a P.C.R. test should be performed after isolation ended, to confirm the diagnosis. Alternately, it may make sense to take a rapid antigen test — which can detect high amounts of virus — while isolating, to confirm an active coronavirus infection.

Other experts also endorsed the use of at-home rapid tests. “I think that’s a lovely solution,” Dr. Ranney said. “If you have symptoms, and you have a reliable test that you can do at home, stay home, test at home and isolate for five days.”

Over all, the new analysis underscores how quickly the coronavirus blooms in the body and the speed with which both patients and doctors must respond to keep it contained, Dr. Baral said. Levels of the MERS virus peak at seven to 10 days from symptom onset, and those of the SARS virus peak at Days 10 to 14.

By contrast, the new coronavirus “moves quick,” Dr. Baral said. “It’s a very difficult virus to control, as compared to SARS.”

Home isolation is safe for most of those newly infected with the coronavirus, he added — essentially the model of care that doctors use for patients suspected of having influenza.

Some countries already have adopted policies to make it easier for people to isolate. Vietnam provides income support to people who need to take time off work. Until May, the Japanese government asked patients who were young and had mild symptoms to stay home for four days before seeking testing.

Japan’s guidelines now ask patients to consult by phone with their doctors and to seek testing only if they seem likely to be infected. Anyone who tests positive is admitted to a hospital or a hotel to isolate. In the United States, New York City and Vermont have made similar accommodations available to infected patients.

Even if the rest of the country doesn’t implement such policies, having patients isolate at home — while wearing a mask, keeping windows open, cleaning high-touch surfaces and staying far from other household members — is more feasible for five days than for 10, Dr. Baral said.

“I do think there’s an element of diminishing returns with those last four or five days,” he said. “An intense amount of isolation during that first five to seven days would avert a ton of infections — a ton.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo.

Think Like a Doctor: The Boy With Nighttime Fevers Solved!

Photo

Credit Andreas Samuelsson

On Thursday we asked Well readers to take on the case of a 7-year-old boy who’d been having fevers and drenching sweats nightly for over a month. More than 300 of you wrote in, and although 20 of you came up with the right diagnosis, only three of you figured out both the diagnosis and the test needed to confirm it.

The correct diagnosis is…

Coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever.

The diagnosis was made based on a lymph node biopsy.

The first reader to suggest this diagnosis and the test was Dr. Malkhaz Jalagonia, an internist from Zugdidi, in the Republic of Georgia. He says he’s never seen a case like this, but he’s fascinated by zebras and so recognized the disease immediately. Well done, Dr. Jalagonia!

One of the reasons I chose this case was that, although this diagnosis is rare in life, it was the most frequently suggested diagnosis in my last column – the one about the middle-aged man with a cough for over a year. I thought it would be fun to show what valley fever really looks like. Hope you did too.

The Diagnosis

Coccidioidomycosis is a lung infection usually caused by inhaling the spores of a tiny fungus called coccidioides. This organism grows as a mold, a few inches below the surface of the soil in deserts in parts of the southwestern United States, Mexico and other countries of Central America.

In dry conditions, the fungus becomes fragile and is easily broken up into tiny single-celled spores that can be sent airborne with even the slightest disturbance. And once these single cells are aloft they can remain suspended there for prolonged periods of time.

Infection is usually acquired by inhaling the spores. Once lodged in the lung, the organism begins to reproduce almost immediately. The time course between exposure and disease depends on the inhaled dose and the patient’s immune system.

Symptoms, or No Symptoms

Disease severity varies considerably. Nearly half of those who breathe in these spores have no symptoms, or symptoms are so mild they never visit the doctor’s office.

More severe infection usually takes the form of a slowly progressive pneumonia known as coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever. This illness is characterized by a cough, fevers, chest pain, fatigue and sometimes joint pain. Indeed, because of the prominent joint pain, in some cases — though not this one — the disease is also known as desert rheumatism.

Rashes are also seen in many patients. Those who get a rash seem to have a more benign course of illness. The thinking is that the skin symptoms are the result of an aggressive immune response in the host to the pathogen.

Symptoms can last for months, and in many cases they resolve without treatment. But in some cases they get worse.

Hard to Diagnose

Those who seek medical attention are often not diagnosed — or not diagnosed quickly — because the symptoms of valley fever are not very specific, and few of the tests that doctors usually order have features that are unusual enough to suggest the diagnosis.

Chest X-rays are often normal. Blood tests may be normal as well, though some patients, like this child, have an unusually high number of a type of white blood cell known as eosinophils. These cells are usually seen in allergic responses or with infections due to parasites.

The most important clue to the possibility of this infection is travel to one of the areas where the fungus lives. In the United States, valley fever is endemic primarily in Arizona and southern California, as well as parts of southern New Mexico and West Texas. Indeed, the name valley fever is a shorter and more general term for an earlier name, San Joaquin Valley fever, because it was so common in that part of California.

A Dramatic Rise

There has been a significant increase in the number of cases of coccidioidomycosis in the past 15 years, with nearly 10 times as many in areas where the fungus is found. Development in areas where the fungus is endemic is thought to be the primary cause. Better diagnostic testing may also play a role.

While this infection may cause only a minor illness in many, there are some – like this child – for whom the disease can spread beyond the lungs into the rest of the body. Disseminated coccidioidomycosis is usually seen in those with some problem with the immune system – an underlying disorder such as H.I.V., for example, or because someone is taking immune suppressing medications such as prednisone.

Once out of the lungs, the bugs can go anywhere in the body, though they seem to prefer joints, skin or bones. Those with disseminated disease have to be treated for a long time – often up to a year, or occasionally for life.

How the Diagnosis Was Made

The little boy had been sick for nearly a month, and his parents were getting quite worried. He was pale, thin and really, really tired.

With their pediatrician’s encouragement, they had gone on a long planned, much anticipated vacation to the mountains of Colorado. But the child wasn’t getting better, and so his mother took him to yet another doctor – this one in a walk-in clinic.

The results of some simple blood tests done at that visit worried the doctor, who suggested that the boy be taken to a hematologist, a specialist in diseases and cancers of the blood.

Now the parents were terrified. The mother faxed copies of the lab results to her brother, a researcher in immunology. He wasn’t a physician but showed the results to friends who were. They agreed with the doctor at the walk-in clinic: The boy needed to be seen by a hematologist.

A Series of Specialists

The next morning the family headed home to Minneapolis. They took the boy to his regular pediatrician, who sent them to a hematologist. It wasn’t cancer, that specialist told them. Maybe some kind of severe food allergy, he suggested, and referred them to a gastroenterologist.

Not a GI thing, that specialist told them, and he referred the now nearly frantic family to an infectious disease specialist and a rheumatologist.

Nearly 10 days after getting the alarming blood test results, the couple and their child found themselves in the office of Dr. Bazak Sharon, a specialist in infectious diseases in adults and children at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. After introducing himself, Dr. Sharon settled down to get a detailed history of the boy and the family.

A Desert Visit, but Other Possibilities

When Dr. Sharon heard that the family had spent a week at a ranch in the desert of Arizona, he immediately thought of coccidioidomycosis. The fungus isn’t found in Minnesota or Colorado – which is probably why other doctors hadn’t considered it. But it is all over the part of Arizona where they’d visited.

Still, there were other possibilities that had to be ruled out, including some types of cancer. After Dr. Sharon examined the boy, he sent the family to the lab for a chest X-ray and some blood tests.

The results of those tests were concerning. The child was getting worse. Dr. Sharon wasn’t going to be back in clinic for a week, and he was certain the child needed to be seen and diagnosed well before then. He called a friend and colleague who was taking care of patients in the hospital, Dr. Abraham Jacob, and asked if he would admit the child and coordinate the needed diagnostic workup for the boy.

First Some Answers, Then More Questions

Once in the hospital, the child had a chest CT scan. The results were frightening. The lymph nodes that surround the trachea, the tube that carries inspired air to the lungs, were hugely enlarged. They were so big that the trachea was almost completely blocked. The opening at one point was just two millimeters wide – basically the dimensions of a cocktail straw. Any worsening of his disease might cause the tube to close completely, making breathing impossible.

A pediatric surgeon was brought in immediately. The enlarged lymph nodes had to be removed. First in order to protect the child’s airways. And second because those nodes would reveal what the little boy had.

But trying to do surgery on a 7-year-old boy’s neck was complicated. Although the surgeon could easily feel the enlarged gland in his neck, it was close to many vital blood vessels, nerves and organs. The child had to lie perfectly still, and with most children that could only be guaranteed if they were under anesthesia.

Risky Surgery

When the anesthesiologist saw the CT scan, the doctors’ concern grew. They could put the child to sleep, but if anything went wrong during surgery and they had to put a tube down his throat into his lungs, they weren’t sure it would be able to fit.

The trachea was so small, there was no guarantee they could get the tube into place. In order to do this safely, they said they needed to use a technique known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – basically a machine that allows them to oxygenate blood without sending it to the lungs.

Rather than subject the child to this risky procedure, Dr. Jacob and the surgeon decided to just take a piece of the lymph node out in order to make the diagnosis. Treatment of whatever the boy had would bring the size of the lymph node down.

Don’t Make a Move

When the boy was brought to the procedure room, the surgeon explained that he was going to put numbing medicine all around the bump in the boy’s neck and take out a piece of it. The child listened calmly and agreed.

He wasn’t to move at all, the surgeon explained. The child nodded solemnly. He understood. The boy was remarkably mature and so brave throughout the entire process of anesthetizing the region that the surgeon thought he might be able to continue and get the entire node out.

He paused in his surgery and consulted the parents. Would they allow him to try this? Their son was doing so well he was sure he could get it. They agreed, and the surgeon returned to his task. The lymph node came out without difficulty.

Photo

Credit

It was sent to the lab and the answer came back almost immediately. The swollen tissue was filled with the tiny coccidioides. You can see a picture of these little critters here.

A Year of Medicine

The boy was started on an intravenous medicine for fungal infections. Then after a week it was changed to one he could take by mouth.

Because the infection had spread beyond the lungs, the child will have to take this medication for a year. After starting the medication, the child began to look a little better. Slowly he was less tired. Slowly he started to eat the way he used to.

It was a long road to the diagnosis, and an even longer road to cure, but at least they were on the right one.

A Perfect Storm?

The mother called the ranch in Arizona where they stayed to let them know what had happened.
The owner told them that their son was not the only person visiting then who got sick. At least one other guest, there at the same time, had come down with the disease.

Apparently the conditions for spread were perfect. Their stay had started off with some rain, followed by heat and some brisk wind. The moisture helped the fungus grow; the heat dried it out so that it could become easily airborne and inhaled when lifted by the wind.

Although the family has loved their visits to this ranch – this was their second year – the child’s mother tells me that she’s not sure she’ll be going back, at least for a couple of years. Most people exposed to valley fever become immune forever, but because her little boy was so very sick, she’s planning to wait a while before they return.