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Masks, Distancing — and Tests

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Reducing the spread of Covid-19 over the next several months — while vaccines are being distributed — has the potential to save more than 100,000 American lives, as I explained earlier this week. So how can we reduce the spread?

Some of the ways are well-known: consistent messages from national leaders; mask wearing; hand washing; and fewer indoor gatherings. But there is one other promising strategy, many experts believe:

Much more testing, especially tests that return results almost immediately, rather than a day or two later.

These tests, often known as antigen tests, could sharply cut the number of new infections by causing many more people who have the virus to enter quarantine. Germany and Italy have used antigen tests recently to reduce new cases. Several U.S. colleges have also used blanket testing — including slower-turnaround tests — to minimize outbreaks.

“There’s clear evidence that test-and-isolate works,” Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at N.Y.U., told me. As Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said, “It can make a big difference, provided it’s coupled with other things.”

To get a better sense of rapid testing, I went through it myself this week. I called several pharmacies and clinics in my areas until I found one offering a test to anybody who wanted one, and I drove there on Tuesday afternoon.

Within minutes of my walking in the door, a pharmacist — wearing a gown, gloves and face shield — was sticking a swab up each of my nostrils. It was unpleasant but not horrible. An hour later he texted me, “Test was negative,” along with a photo of a hand-held device whose screen showed “CoV2: -”

Imagine if all Americans could take multiple tests every month — including right before any risky behavior, like flying or seeing relatives. And imagine the tests were free, rather than the $100-plus I paid. A program of mass testing “can enable the United States to begin to achieve normalcy within weeks,” Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who is pushing for more testing, has written.

It’s important to note that these antigen tests are imperfect. Even after a negative test, people need to remain careful. Yet tests don’t need to be perfect to reverse the virus’s recent growth — and save thousands of lives. The key, Mina told me, is reducing the average number of new infections caused by each person with the virus to fewer than 1.0, from roughly 1.3 now.

Why isn’t the U.S. doing more testing? There are a few reasons.

The F.D.A. has been slow to grant approval for new tests. The Trump administration has been slow to spend the money that Congress has allocated for testing. And Congress may need to allocate more money; mass testing could cost a few billion dollars a month — still a small fraction of the cost of recent proposed virus bills.

To go into more depth on Covid testing, I recommend this new Times guide. “Ideally, you should be able to get a coronavirus test whenever you want it,” Tara Parker-Pope and Katherine J. Wu write.

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At least 82 new movies about the holidays are coming out this year, continuing a recent boom in Christmas films.

Why is it happening? Because people watch them. “No matter what the state of the economy, no matter what the state of chaos or stability, there is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming,” one expert told The Times last year. Hulu’s entry into the holiday genre this year, “Happiest Season,” broke premiere records on the platform, Variety reported.

The movies are also lucrative to advertisers because they attract women between 18 and 54 years old, a group that tends to have purchasing power. The Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network among that demographic for the entire fourth quarter two years ago.

If the films seem formulaic, that’s by design. “After spending two hours with us, you’ll feel a little bit better about yourself and about the world,” Michelle Vicary, a Hallmark executive, told The Los Angeles Times.

Our colleague Alexandra McGuffie analyzed this year’s releases and found several trends: Many protagonists are writers, journalists, teachers or musicians, and the movies’ titles often showcase a plot point. One example is “Feliz NaviDAD,” which focuses on a single father who finds romance with — who else — a musician.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was cruciform. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Move like a dreidel (4 letters).


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