By Chad Savage, M.D.
Testing for COVID-19 seems like a harmless response to rising cases but with any broad range plan, there can be unintended consequences, often negative.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan requires all athletes age 13-19 participating in school and recreational sports to undergo nasal antigen testing for COVID-19 at least weekly. The frequency of testing could be up to three times weekly for contact sports. The justification for this costly and invasive testing is an increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks in Michigan. Though the reason for this increase is unclear, some cases have been linked to sporting events.
No Test is Perfect
First, testing may offer a false sense of protection. The BinaxNOW rapid antigen test, which will be used, has a 64 percent likelihood of missing the presence of virus among asymptomatic athletes. This means it could miss two out of three COVID cases in this group and invalidate the effort.
Of those who do test positive, there is a one percent chance the result is false. That means healthy people can be incorrectly labeled as sick when they are not. While one percent sounds inconsequential, results magnify when testing a large number of healthy people. One percent of the estimated 150,000 adolescents participating in spring sports translates to 1,500 healthy children being told they have COVID every time they test.
Michigan’s interim guidance indicates testing could be up to three times per week. That much testing could result in thousands of healthy adolescents incorrectly being added to the State of Michigan COVID-19 case counts. Injecting this much “noise” into the data would not only create the appearance of a COVID spike even if one did not exist but would confound the detection or measure of a true spike if one were to occur.
Further, false positives may make it near impossible for a healthy team to complete a season. Every week, a team consisting of 16 players would have a one in six chance of having a player falsely test positive. If that occurred it could mean quarantine for the entire team, and it wouldn’t stop there. Quarantines would extend to family members and classmates causing each to miss school, work, and other obligations.
Teens naturally resist adult orders and forced testing would be no different. Instead of cooperating, teens in sports may give up altogether.
This would be tragic. We know inactive children are more likely to become inactive adults and inactive adults are more likely to die prematurely. The policymakers who have made sports less attractive will no longer be held accountable because the lethal consequences to children may not happen for years.
Other consequences could come sooner. If this past year has shown anything, it is children, who largely are not mortally endangered by COVID infections, have been severely harmed by COVID restrictions. Suicides, the second leading cause of death in adolescents, are skyrocketing. Since the COVID restrictions have been in place, claims for self-harm have increased an unthinkable 333 percent.
For children, death from COVID is extremely rare. Since the start of the pandemic five COVID deaths have occurred in children aged 10-19 in Michigan. Each death is tragic, but children are at more risk from many other things. In 2019, drug overdoses killed a whopping 2,385 Michiganders (of all ages). Ominously, teenage drug overdose claims have increased 94 percent during the pandemic indicating these already horrific statistics may become even worse.
These numbers suggest COVID-restriction-induced harms dwarf any direct effects COVID could have on our children and that our efforts should be directed instead to the elderly who are up to 7,900 times more likely to die from COVID than children.
High Price, Lost Time
Though the State is mandating widespread testing, it is unclear who will pay for the direct costs (test kits, staffing, etc.) which will likely range in the millions of dollars per week. There is also the time cost. People spend hours away from work, school, or leisure activity going through the machinations of testing, waiting in lines, which by the way, is a potential risk factor for spreading the virus.
Michigan or other sports organizations would serve their young people better by recognizing there is little correlation between mass testing and lockdowns to COVID cases and mortality. We all want to stomp out COVID-19 but Michigan should leave testing to the sick. Mass testing of healthy, student-athletes will cause more harm than good.
Chad Savage, M.D.(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy advisor at The Heartland Institute, and the founder of the DPC practice YourChoice Direct Care in Brighton, Michigan. A version of this article appeared in the Detroit News on March 30. Reprinted with permission.