The C.D.C. and N.I.H. launch a fast, at-home testing initiative in Tennessee and North Carolina.

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The C.D.C. and N.I.H. launch a rapid, at-home testing initiative in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative Wednesday to see if the frequent and widespread use of rapid coronavirus tests is slowing the spread of the virus.

The program will provide free antigen testing at home to everyone in two communities, Pitt County, NC, and Hamilton County, Tennessee, for free, bringing a total of 160,000 people to test for the coronavirus three times a week for a while a month.

"This is exactly what I and others have been calling for almost a year – widespread, accessible, rapid testing to contain transmission," said Michael Mina, Harvard University epidemiologist who advocated rapid rapid testing at home programs.

He added, "It's something anyone can do if they take 30 seconds out of the day three times a week to do the test."

Antigen tests are cheaper and faster than P.C.R. However, tests, which are the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, are less sensitive and more prone to false negative results. Mathematical models have shown that if these tests are used frequently, they can still reduce the transmission of the virus.

The tests can help identify people who may not realize they are infectious and cause them to self-isolate before they can transmit the virus to others. Real world data is limited, however, and with virus cases still high across the country, testing is still essential, according to public health experts.

"We have all hypothesized that large-scale home testing could stop the chain of transmission of the virus and allow communities to discover many more cases," said Bruce Tromberg, who heads the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and its rapid acceleration directs the diagnostic program that provides the tests for the initiative. “All mathematical models predict that. But this is an example from the real world, real life. "

Residents who choose to participate in the program can have the tests brought to their home or pick them up at local sales locations. An online tool guides participants through the testing process and helps them interpret their results. Residents can also volunteer to take surveys to see if frequent tests have changed their behavior, knowledge of Covid-19, or their minds about vaccination.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Duke University will compare the positivity, case, and hospitalization rates in these two communities with those in other similar communities that do not participate in the program.

A. David Paltiel, Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Yale School of Public Health, described the start of a real-world study of the effectiveness of rapid home screening as "simply good news." However, he cautioned that the results need to be interpreted carefully, especially if residents who choose to participate in the initiative are not representative of the entire community.

"We know that self-selection tends to bring out the concerned and a disproportionate number of people who are already Covid-aware or Covid-conscientious," he said.

"It will be great to see how it works when it's in the hands of people who really care," he added. However, he said the results may not be broadly applicable to screening programs that require participation, as may be the case with some workplace and school programs.

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