Recent projections indicate significant increase in the need for COVID-19 testing as flu season hits
The peak of the first wave of COVID-19 cases has come and gone in many regions throughout the United States. Demand for COVID-19 tests still remains high, but some clinical laboratories have seen a gradual decline in their COVID-19 test volumes. This could all change, however, as flu season begins throughout the United States.
New analysis from consulting firm McKinsey and Company projects that the demand for COVID-19 testing during the upcoming flu season may increase by as much as threefold, compared to test volumes over the summer months.
There are two main factors that will influence demand for COVID-19 testing during flu season. The first is the similarity between influenza symptoms and the symptoms of COVID-19. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, clinicians will be unable to rule out the presence of COVID-19 in patients with influenza based solely on their presenting symptoms and will have to test for both.
The second factor is the possibility that COVID-19 may follow the same seasonal patterns that other coronaviruses and influenza tend to follow. It is still unknown if COVID-19 will follow a seasonal pattern, but some experts suggest this is likely. A recent paper published in Frontiers in Public Health found that COVID-19 is likely to follow seasonal patterns, especially as herd immunity becomes more prevalent. “We think it’s highly likely, given what we know so far, COVID-19 will eventually become seasonal, like other coronaviruses,” coauthor Hassan Zaraket, PhD, explained in a recent interview.
Other experts, however, have expressed that the increased precautions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may lessen the relative severity of influenza over the upcoming flu season. “There certainly is some data out of the Southern Hemisphere that is very recent data that shows their flu season was not as bad as normal because people were social distancing and wearing masks,” David Ellis, MD, FACOG, Chief Medical Officer for Pardee UNC Health Care recently told ABC News. “We certainly hope it won’t be as bad as it has been in years past, but that is going to depend a whole lot on people’s behavior.”
While COVID-19 precautions may have some effect on flu cases, it does appear likely that the projections for increased COVID-19 test volumes by McKinsey and Company will hold true to some degree. There are already some concerns that the potential increase in COVID-19 testing may lead to supply chain issues.
Need for Clinical Laboratories to Develop Supply Contingency Plans Now
Clinical laboratory leaders can prepare now for the potential increased demand for COVID-19 testing that will likely occur during the flu season. Supply chain issues will likely become worse if testing volumes do increase significantly. Securing existing supply chains and developing contingency testing plans will be essential for clinical laboratories that anticipate increased COVID-19 testing demands.
Clinical lab leaders should be aware that the FDA has recently offered flexibility by allowing labs to make respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV) and influenza test modifications to conserve test supplies. See, As Flu Season Approaches, FDA Provides Clinical Laboratories Flexibility to Modify Influenza and RSV Tests. Clinical laboratories should review these changes and assess if they will be of benefit in their unique situations.
Ultimately, the potential threefold increase in COVID-19 testing may end up being beneficial for the revenue of clinical laboratories that suffered decreased test volumes and income during the early months of the pandemic. The potential for increased revenue will, however, take careful planning to ensure that testing supplies are available to meet the upcoming increase in testing demand.
—By Caleb Williams, Editor, COVID-19 STAT
McKinsey and Company: Winter is coming: What’s next in COVID-19 testing
Frontiers in Public Health: Seasonality of Respiratory Viral Infections: Will COVID-19 Follow Suit?
Contagion Live: Will COVID-19 Become a Seasonal Virus?
ABC News: Will flu season be better because of COVID precautions?
FDA: Enforcement Policy for Modifications to FDA-Cleared Molecular Influenza and RSV Tests During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency