In contrast to US, UN backs testing people without symptoms

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo woman walks, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, near the beach, in Saint Jean de Luz, southwestern France. The World Health Organizations top official in Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge warned Thursday Aug. 27, 2020, that the coronavirus is a tornado with a long tail saying rising case counts among young people could ultimately spread the virus, and WHO issued advice to hotels as cases across Europe have increased amid the summer holiday season. (AP Photo/Bob Edme, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

GENEVA – The World Health Organization said Thursday that countries should actively test people to find coronavirus cases even if they don’t show symptoms — a stance that comes after the U.S. health agency switched its policy to say that asymptomatic contacts of infected people don’t need to be tested.

At a press briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said when officials are investigating clusters of COVID-19, “testing may need to be expanded to look for individuals who are on the more mild end of the spectrum or who may indeed be asymptomatic.”

Yet new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s not necessary for people who have been in close contact with infected people but who don’t feel sick to get tested. The agency had previously advised local health officials to test people who'd been within about 6 feet (1.8 meters) of an infected person for over 15 minutes.

Van Kerkhove said countries were free to adapt WHO's testing guidance for their individual needs and while testing itself was important, it was equally critical to get testing results back fast.

“What’s really important is that testing is used as an opportunity, to define active cases so that they can be isolated and so that contact tracing can also take place,” she said. “This is really fundamental to breaking chains of transmission.”

Van Kerkhove also expressed concerns about public behavior, saying she’s growing “a little bit concerned” that the use of masks is leading some people to think they don’t need to keep safe distances from others.

“We’re seeing that people aren’t really adhering to the physical distancing anymore,” Van Kerkhove said. “Even if you’re wearing masks, you still need to try to do the physical distancing of at least one meter and even further if you can.”

Earlier Thursday, the WHO's chief for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that the coronavirus is a “tornado with a long tail” and said rising infections among young people could spread to more vulnerable older people and cause an uptick in deaths.