News

A cluster of purple states are reducing testing for COVID-19, simply when it is wanted probably the most

As case counts were climbing in Texas over the months of June and July, the state ramped up the rate of testing. Considering the level of positive tests being returned, the 62,000 tests a day being done in mid-July were in no sense adequate, but they were a whole lot easier to justify than what has happened since then. 

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports, the rate of testing in Texas fell to just 34,000 tests a day last week. This didn’t happen because case counts were dropping. In fact, as the number of tests was declining, the rate of positive testing was sharply increasing. Over the last seven days, one-quarter of all people tested in Texas have tested positive. This, like the number of deaths, is among the highest rates reported since the earliest days of the pandemic when testing was essentially restricted to patients already in the hospital. It’s a terrifying signal that Texas isn’t really controlling the virus—it’s just following Trump’s advice to reduce the number of new cases by reducing the number of tests.

A test result as high as that in Texas doesn’t just signal that the disease is continuing to expand at a fearsome rate, but shows that the testing program is woefully short. And that’s despite Texas authorizing the use of new tests.

Texas’ rate of testing is plummeting, in spite of using more types of tests, even as the rate of positives is shooting up.

Texas is far from alone. Data from Johns Hopkins shows that Florida is also doing far fewer tests than it was a month ago. Rather than report a flood of tests after many counties suspended testing and reporting during the passage of the recent hurricane, Florida has continued to conduct fewer daily tests—just over one-third of the peak number performed in mid-July. At 18% positive, Florida’s numbers aren’t as definitively red-alert level as those in Texas, but they are indicative of a test program that’s doing about one-tenth the level of testing necessary to adequately characterize the disease and isolate cases.

Even Florida hasn’t chopped testing the way that Arizona has. As the Grand Canyon State reports its second highest rate of deaths so far and a positive test result still over 12%, the total number of tests being conducted is barely one-quarter of the tests that were being conducted a month ago. Where daily tests regularly passed 20,000 in July, the level of testing this week has been barely over 6,000—part of a two-week steady decline. No hurricanes required.

At the other end of the scale, California’s rate of testing is rising with the latest two days passing 180,000 tests per day, for the highest numbers yet recorded. The 7% positive rate in the nation’s largest state is nowhere near what it should be, but it certainly beats the other chart-toppers and demonstrates that California is much closer to an adequate testing regime.

Or contrast with New York. Despite dropping the rate of positive results to below 1%, New York is testing at a higher rate now than ever. Cases may be dropping off in this original hotspot, but testing and vigilance over the disease’s return is not.

Still, the sharp declines in Texas, Florida, and Arizona just as the question of kids entering school and how colleges are going to handle sports looks like more than coincidence—it looks very much like an attempt to paper over the truth in Republican-led states. Despite what Donald Trump has said, fewer tests doesn’t mean fewer cases. Fewer tests means less knowledge. It means making less-informed decisions. It means more deaths.

Back in April, Trump predicted the United States would be doing 5 million tests a day “very soon.” Nothing like that ever came close to happening. Despite expert advice showing that the United States needed to reach over 4 million tests per day to deal with the crisis, by July the White House had backed off to claims that the U. S. would hit about 1.5 million tests per day “by fall.”

But the rate of testing in the United States is not growing. The increase in states like California is being more than offset by red states where testing has been cut back drastically. Tests in South Carolina have fallen to levels last seen in May, even as positive results top 15%. Testing in Tennessee is a third of what it was, while new cases and deaths continue at near their peak. A dozen other states have simply failed to increase their testing capacity since June.

The result is that total testing in the United States peaked at 926,000 in mid-July. Since then it has gone steadily down, averaging 720,000 over the last week. This is happening despite a recent peak in positive test rates, and right at the time that testing is more required—both to support decisions about schools, and to bring the virus under as much control as possible in advance of the flu season that begins in just weeks. The need for testing hasn’t declined. But the states where it is needed the most are simply not keeping up.

It’s hard to believe that’s happening by accident.

Related Articles