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COVID-19 testing imperative in differentiating viral infections

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Posted at 4:53 PM, Dec 29, 2021

BILLINGS — The Omicron variant is making its way across Montana, along with other viral infections like the cold, RSV, and the flu. Many are wondering when you should get tested and just how accurate those at-home tests really are.

There’s still very little be known about the Omicron variant, but one thing is for sure.

“This variant compared to previous variants transfers a lot more readily,” said Billings Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Neil Ku.

Symptoms of the Omicron variant are similar to the flu with a sore throat, dry cough, and body aches. Just because the Omicron variant is around doesn’t mean that other infectious diseases aren’t.

“Compared to last year, we are seeing a significant number of other viruses, other viruses that we’ve seen prior to the pandemic,” Ku said.

Because of the large overlap in symptoms, it’s important to differentiate what the actual cause of your illness might be because the treatments are different.

This is where testing comes into play.

“The only way we can identify the Omicron variant definitively is by performing procedural whole-genome sequencing,” Ku said.

This means that Billings area hospitals will send a limited amount of COVID-19 samples to the Montana Public Health Lab in Helena to determine which variants are in Montana.

“The problem is that all the commercially available tests do not readily identify the Omicron variant,” Ku said.

This doesn’t mean that your at-home tests won’t tell you whether or not you have COVID. It also doesn’t mean that you should disregard getting tested.

“We advocate to get tested because of the infection control and public health implications to the virus that causes COVID-19,” Ku said.

Testing is crucial because of how rapidly the Omicron variant spreads. A COVID-19 positive individual might unknowingly give it to someone with underlying health issues.

The tests offered at Billings area hospitals are more accurate than at-home tests, however, any COVID-19 test offered at local pharmacies is better than ignoring possible symptoms.

“They’re not perfect, but it will help for the majority of the time for infection control purposes,” Ku said.

Infection control is key. Ku says that if you’re developing COVID-19 symptoms at this time, it’s likely due to the Omicron variant.

“It’s important that we know that diagnosis because we need to start treatment,” said Ku.

While this is cause for concern, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Two new anti-viral pills from Pfizer and Merck will be available on the market in 2022.