After an April described as “wasted” by some experts, it seems that in May America is finally making real progress in testing the corona virus.
In recent weeks, the United States has seen significant improvements not only with the raw number of Covid-19 tests, but also with other metric experts used to measure the magnitude of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak and its testing capability.
In the week of May 5, the U.S. reported an average of nearly 300,000 new coronavirus tests per day, according to the U.S. newspaper Covid Tracking Project. That’s nearly double the roughly 150,000 daily tests conducted in early April, although it still doesn’t meet the number of new tests that experts say take the day to fully control the outbreak – a number that ranges from 500,000 on the low side to tens of millions on the high side, depending on which plan you read.
The US also saw a significant improvement in another key measure of coronavirus testing: the positive rate, or the percentage of tests that return positive for Covid-19. In general, a higher positive percentage suggests that not enough tests are taking place: it indicates that only people with obvious symptoms are tested.
The US positive rate in the week of May 5 was nearly 8 percent – down from nearly 21 percent in the week of April 5. Experts have said that the positive percentage should not exceed 10 percent, but preferably much lower.
“Daily [Covid-19] tests continue to increase nationally while positivity continues to decline, “Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, wrote on Twitter. “These are hopeful signs that the epidemic – at least in many parts of the nation – is slowing down.”
However, this does not mean that the entire country is already ready to reopen the economy. Even the latest numbers, no matter how promising they are, are falling short of what some experts have asked. And due to other statistics, the US is still behind where it should be.
It is also unclear whether the gains will hold and continue. During much of March, there were significant improvements in testing, only to stop those gains in April. Future testing issues could delay more increases.
But, at least for now, America has finally made real progress.
Testing comes there, according to an important statistic
Testing is critical to controlling the coronavirus pandemic. Coupled with contact tracking, tests allow officials to monitor the extent of an outbreak, isolate the sick, quarantine those with whom the sick have come into contact, and make efforts for the entire community where necessary. Aggressive testing and tracking is how other countries, including South Korea and Germany got their outbreaks under control and admitted them get started reopen in recent weeks (although even they did) scaled back reopenings after new peaks in Covid-19 cases).
The fact that Covid-19 tests are increasing while the positive rate is decreasing indicates that the US is now moving towards sufficient testing capacity to match the magnitude of the outbreak.
Part of the drop in the positive rate is likely due to improvements in New York State, which had the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the U.S. so far. New York State’s positive rate peaked at over 50 percent in late March and early April, dropping to about 9 percent in the week of May 5.
Even without New York, the US positive rate has also fallen, from about 17 percent in mid-April to nearly 8 percent in the week of May 5.
A majority of states now have coronavirus positive rates below 10 percent, which is the acceptable maximum, according to experts. Only 15 states and Washington, DC had a positive rate of over 10 percent in the week of May 5.
The US is still a long way from where some other countries are testing. According to Our world in data, New Zealand, Taiwan, and South Korea – all places that have better fought their Covid-19 outbreaks – have positive test rates of less than 2 percent and even 1 percent.
“” Test, test, test “means more numbers in that low range,” Natalie Dean, a biostatics professor at the University of Florida, told me. She added, “We have a lot more to test.”
Much of the progress so far has been despite a lack of federal leadership. Test numbers stagnated for much of April due to shortages in the supply of swabs, reagents, and other materials needed to collect samples and perform coronavirus tests.
Experts have said that the federal government, led by President Donald Trump, should make national efforts to boost testing. But Trump’s “Blueprint” for testing, the issue explicitly leaves it to the states and the private sector, saying that the federal government will act only as a “last resort provider”.
Most states need more time before they can safely reopen
Despite the improvements, experts warn that the US should not rush to fully reopen its economy.
The White House Guidelines and the experts’ proposals explain what standards states must meet to reopen – and slowly reopen them with a phased approach that gradually unlocks parts of the economy. To initiate that phased reopening, the proposals typically call for a decrease in new Covid-19 cases over two weeks and enough tests to diagnose all the sick and their contacts.
Most states don’t meet either standard.
With testing, most states now fall below the 10 percent positive rate. But when it comes to reaching the positive rate in South Korea or New Zealand, for example, only six states – Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming – have rates below the week of May 5 2 percent.
Testing should also involve contact tracking, where ‘disease detectives’ identify who the infected has come into contact with and can quarantine those contacts. Experts have called on the U.S. to hire between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers. Based on one tracked by NPR, 44 states and Washington, DC, plan to hire about 66,000 contact tracers as of May 7 – nearly two-thirds of the minimum.
Overall, the country as a whole has seen its new reported Covid-19 cases drop daily in May. But much of that drop came from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York – the three states that make up the New York City metro area, where the worst outbreak occurred. When those three states are excluded, the U.S. has seen new Covid-19 cases on a daily basis that, at best, have only begun to decline in recent days – far from the two-week declines that experts recommend.
Part of the upward trend in Covid-19 cases outside of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York in recent weeks is likely due to more testing. While fewer tests come back positive, doing many more tests can still mean finding far more cases than a state would otherwise.
Still, the numbers suggest it’s too early to declare victory. Based on data prepared by the New York Times, only 18 states have seen their daily new reported cases of coronavirus drop in recent days – let alone the two weeks experts have asked. Seven states have seen their daily new cases increase, while the other 25 have kept their numbers more or less the same.
In summary, these figures suggest that most states are not yet ready to reopen. While America made significant progress in meeting the challenge of this pandemic in May, there is still some work to be done.