By Veronica Perry
On Thursday, April 2, Neeraj Sood, professor and vice dean for research at the USC Price School of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center, spoke to more than 100 participants on Zoom as a part of USC Price’s Price Talks: Public in a Pandemic series. In his conversation, Sood underscored the importance of testing in order to understand this new disease and how he is leading a major effort in collaboration with Los Angeles County Public Health Department to improve our understanding of COVID-19 by offering COVID-19 testing to Los Angelenos.
Sood explained that the traditional role of testing is to aid in proper diagnosis and then tailor treatments for the given diagnosis. In this traditional view, you want to test the sick to figure out what ailment they have and then provide the correct treatment. However, we don’t have a cure for COVID. So testing the sick has limited value in guiding clinical decision-making. Sood explained, “We are treating symptoms of COVID not the disease itself. So knowing that a patient has COVID is not helping much with clinical decisions making.”
Another reason for testing the sick, is to reduce the spread of disease. This type of testing is called “contact tracing”. You test people with symptoms and find confirmed cases of COVID-19. Then you test all the contacts of the confirmed cases. Contact tracing is more likely to work and be feasible early in the epidemic when infection is not wide spread in the community. Sood explained that the United States has already reached a stage where likely millions of people potentially have COVID-19, making contact tracing an unavailable option. “We should have done contact tracing in early January. Now we have community spread, where we have potentially millions in the U.S. who have contracted the disease,” Sood said.
Another, important role of testing is to learn about a disease, this is especially important for a new disease like COVID-19. Sood said, “We’ve tried to learn about the disease completely wrong”.. “We’ve tested only people with severe symptoms and those who are hospitalized. You shouldn’t test the sickest population, you should test a representative population.” This matters, Sood explains, especially because a representative sample provides more accurate data – which is especially crucial when making or implementing policy.
“It is critical to understand how many people in the population have contracted the disease and find out what happens to them over time,” he said. There are still many unknowns: How contagious is the disease? How likely will infected individuals need to be hospitalized? What is the true mortality rate? “Knowing these basic facts is critical for guiding public policy and healthcare interventions,” Sood continued.
As a health policy researcher, what Sood is actively trying to uncover is how many people have the disease and then use that number to figure out the true mortality rate. Sood explains that there are countless people who might have, or have had, COVID-19 but have not been tested or reported to the CDC. “What we’ve done right now is compare the deaths we have today to the small population of people who have been tested for the disease and reported to the CDC,” Sood said.
To remedy this critical gap in data, Sood is partnering with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department to offer testing to a representative sample of Los Angeles residents. His study launched today with tests being offered on April 10 and 11 and if it’s successful it will be repeated every two weeks. “Public health departments are eager to learn the results of this study. We need this information to make evidence based decisions about reducing the burden of COVID-19,” said Sood. Eventually, Sood hopes to start phase two, which involves setting up testing centers across the city to test for the virus on a larger scale. So far, he’s raised $100,000 to conduct research on the virus and is accepting donations here to support his study.
During the talk, Sood also answered questions from the audience about the false/positive and false/negative results of the COVID-19 tests, virus detection techniques, national testing efforts and predicted mortality in Los Angeles. You can access the recorded event to hear the full, dynamic conversation.
Save the date: Register for the next Price Talk, taking place on Wednesday, April 8, at 12:30 p.m. discussing the impact of the pandemic on the economy. You can register for Price Talks here.