Background Asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 poses a significant burden on managing the spread of COVID-19. Few studies have evaluated the impact of testing for asymptomatic COVID-19 among large populations or whole cities using empirical data. No study to our knowledge has considered if such interventions result in or exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. The aim of our study is to explore social and spatial inequalities in uptake and case-detection of rapid lateral flow SARS-CoV-2 antigen tests (LFTs) offered to people without symptoms of COVID-19 in Liverpool between 6th November 2020 and 31st January 2021.
Methods Linked pseudonymised records for asymptomatic residents in Liverpool (UK) who received a LFT for COVID-19 between 6th November 2020 to 31st January 2021 were accessed using the Combined Intelligence for Population Health Action (CIPHA) data resource. Bayesian Hierarchical Poisson Besag, York, and Mollié models were used to estimate ecological associations for uptake and positivity of testing.
Results 214 525 residents (43%) received a LFT identifying 5557 individuals as positive cases of COVID-19 (1.3%). Uptake was highest in November when there was military assistance. High uptake was observed again in the week preceding Christmas and was sustained into a national lockdown. Overall uptake and repeat testing were lower among males (e.g. 40% uptake over the whole period), Black Asian and other Minority Ethnic groups (e.g. 27% uptake for ‘Mixed’ ethnicity) and in the most deprived areas (e.g. 32% uptake in most deprived areas). These population groups were also more likely to have received positive tests for COVID-19. Models demonstrated that uptake and repeat testing were lower in areas of higher deprivation, areas located further from test sites and areas containing populations less confident in the using Internet technologies. Positive tests were spatially clustered in deprived areas.
Conclusion Our study provides the first substantial evidence on inequalities involved in large-scale asymptomatic rapid testing of populations for SARS-CoV-2. Large-scale voluntary asymptomatic community testing saw social, ethnic, and spatial inequalities in an ‘inverse care’ pattern, but with an added digital exclusion factor. While test uptake was popular, there was a disconnect between the populations accessing testing and those experiencing harms relating to COVID-19. COVID-19 testing and support to isolate need to be more accessible to the vulnerable communities most impacted by the pandemic, including non-digital means of access.
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