A new study from the University of Wyoming suggests that frequent diagnostic testing and self-isolation may be more effective than shutting down schools and businesses in the fight against infectious diseases like COVID-19.
The findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The research was conducted by faculty members of the UW Department of Economics – Stephen Newbold, David Finnoff, Jason Shogren, and Linda Thunstrom, and recent Ph.D. graduate Madison Ashworth. The team devised an epidemiological and economic model to evaluate the effectiveness of physical distancing mandates compared to policies that promote regular testing and self-isolation in the face of a burgeoning pandemic. They found that a strategy of random testing tends to be more successful than physical distancing in most scenarios when it comes to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 or similar diseases.
“The United States initially attempted to combat the spread of (COVID-19) using a portfolio of controls that is heavy on physical distancing and masks and light on regular diagnostic testing with self-isolation,” the researchers wrote, noting that the former included work-from-home requirements, school and business closures, and travel restrictions. “However, these same measures also have led to reduced employment, lost earnings, and a variety of adverse physical and mental health impacts due to withdrawing from economic activities and curtailing social interactions for long periods.”
While a number of researchers and public health experts have conducted studies suggesting testing and self-isolation would be more effective than large-scale shutdowns, the UW study is the first to take into account the concept of “superspreading” — in which a large share of people are exposed to a pathogen by a small number of infected individuals.
The UW researchers also used a wide variety of model variations looking at both economic benefits and costs, and health outcomes, of the two approaches to combating a disease outbreak. The study took into account diagnostic test error rates, self-isolation compliance rates, the cost of testing, and lost economic productivity from physical distancing or isolation.
The researchers acknowledge that there is no clear answer to whether government policy in the event of an outbreak should focus on suppressing the disease through aggressive actions or slowing the spread through less aggressive measures — apparently subtle differences can lead to one approach performing better than the other in any given case.
The main implications of the study, however, centered on the relative performance of physical distancing vs. testing.
“We found that for an epidemic similar to the ancestral strain of SARS-CoV-2, an optimized strategy of random testing with voluntary self-isolation can deliver higher net benefits than a physical distancing strategy over a wide range of plausible conditions in our model,” the economists wrote, adding that incorporating the concept of superspreading makes the testing-isolation approach even more effective than physical-distancing mandates.
Reference: “Physical distancing versus testing with self-isolation for controlling an emerging epidemic” by Stephen C. Newbold, Madison Ashworth, David Finnoff, Jason F. Shogren and Linda Thunström, 20 May 2023, Scientific Reports.