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As vaccinations ramp up, COVID testing is down. That could be a problem, doctors say

Less testing could make it harder to track the new, more contagious variants of the virus that are spreading.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors have maintained that prevalent, consistent testing is critical to keep spread of the virus under control.

But testing nationwide and across Florida in recent weeks is down.

Some doctors say that could be problematic as we try to stay ahead of new variants of the virus that appear to be more contagious and deadly while we race to vaccinate enough people against it.

“We don't know how fast the variants are going to spread, but we know they are spreading,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson with the USF Health. “Monitoring and surveillance are the core tools of public health so you can get a sense where there’s a variance in numbers or percentages and you begin to explore and tweak.”

Nationwide, testing for COVID-19 is down 30 percent from a high of nearly 14 million tests a week in early January, reports the New York Times.

Here in Florida, where we were averaging more than 1 million tests each week in January, testing fell 20 percent in February. The state health department on Monday reported its lowest case increase since mid-October from its smallest batch of tests – roughly 33,000 – since that same timeframe.

RELATED: Coronavirus in Florida: State reports 1,700 new cases, low number of tests

The drop in demand for testing is even more dramatic at state-run sites where Florida’s emergency management director Jared Moskowitz told WFTV they’d seen a 50-percent decline in recent weeks.

The recent bad weather across the country, the end of the holiday travel rush, and just flat-out pandemic fatigue could all potentially help explain the slowdown, Wolfson said.

But epidemiologist Dr. Tom Unnasch thinks the decline reflects progress and is a good sign. Testing might be down but so is the percent positivity rate.

"That means there's less people getting sick and that means there are less people going to get tested,” Unnasch said.

Unnasch likened these next coming months to being at a fork in the road. Both trails lead you to the same place, but one is a gentle, downhill slope and the other is a mountain.

RELATED: How many people have been vaccinated? Tracking Florida's path to herd immunity

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How we respond to these spreading variants and the rate at which we continue vaccinations will be critical to how we get to the end of this, which he predicts will be by this summer.

“If we start to loosen up and start to think this is over, we’re going to be taking the trail to climb the mountain again,” he said.  “In the end we’re going to end up at the same place, but the one way is going to be a lot more painful to get there than the other way.”

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