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“Stealth Transmission” Makes Coronavirus Testing Even More Critical

COVID-19 tests per million people. Source: World Health Organization testing data as of March 12, 2020. (YES! Media)
COVID-19 tests per million people. Source: World Health Organization testing data as of March 12, 2020. (YES! Media)
March 26, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. -- In China, a large number of coronavirus infections flew under the radar, widely circulating in communities before travel restrictions were put into place.

New research says these so-called stealth transmissions likely drove the rapid spread of the virus across the globe.

Study co-author Jeffrey Shaman, a professor at Columbia University, says free and widely available testing -- as in South Korea -- helps explain why that nation seems to be squashing the virus quickly.

Shaman says right now in the U.S., testing for people who lack COVID-19 symptoms largely isn't happening.

"Well, what it certainly suggests is that a more proactive sampling of the population and more proactive testing procedures, would catch more cases," he states. "How that would be implemented is something that we could debate for quite some time."

Shaman and his team found, using mathematical modeling, that prior to the Chinese government's Jan. 23 travel ban in Wuhan, 86% of COVID-19 cases were unidentified.

According to the state, around 10,000 North Carolinians have been tested for the new coronavirus, and more than 500 have tested positive.

Shaman agrees with other experts that the silent spread of the novel coronavirus makes tactics like social distancing and stay-at-home orders crucial to flattening the curve of infections.

"If somebody's experiencing mild symptoms, and I think most of us can relate to this, we're still going to go about our day," he states. "We'll still send the kids to school, we'll still go to work. And it's that sort of continued contact with people that allows the silent transmission of many respiratory viruses."

Shaman stresses that a radical ramp-up in testing for everyone is needed to fully control community spread of the new coronavirus.

This story is a collaboration with original reporting from Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz at YES! Media. Reach Loeffelholz on Twitter @LoeffelholzDunn.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC