March 5, 2021

Coronavirus testing has plummeted. Just how big of a problem is that?

Daily Briefing

    Coronavirus testing has declined in the United States, alarming many public health officials and experts, who say testing remains critical in America's fight to contain the novel coronavirus.

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    New data shows drop in US coronavirus testing  

    According to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, coronavirus testing reached a peak around Jan. 15, with the country administering an average of more than 2 million coronavirus tests each day.

    Since then, coronavirus testing has declined significantly. As of mid-February, the country averaged just over 1 million coronavirus tests each day, and although the pace has rebounded since then, it is still well below January's peaks.

    State- and county-level data indicates that some areas have seen particularly steep testing declines, the New York Times reports. Michigan, for example, is testing about half as many people as it was in November, while Los Angeles County—which conducted more than 350,000 coronavirus tests weekly at the end of January—tested at just 35% of its capacity last week, the Times reports. According to the Associated Press, the decrease in testing has resulted in some testing sites shuttering their doors or seeking to return testing supplies.

    Several factors could be driving this decrease in testing, according to public health experts and officials: less travel, poor weather conditions, the ongoing vaccine rollout, fewer cases of possible exposure to the coronavirus, pandemic fatigue, and recent decreases in newly reported coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

    "When you combine all those together, you see this decrease," said Richard Pescatore, chief physician for the division of public health in Delaware, where daily coronavirus testing has dropped by more than 40% since January's peak. "People just aren't going to go out to testing sites."

    Meanwhile, Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Health Security, said she believes the drop in testing is "probably" the result of "fewer options for testing, fewer communications about it, [and] people may be perceiving that it's less necessary—maybe they just don't see the point anymore."

    And some experts think testing will decline further as more Covid-19 vaccine doses become available and local governments shift their resources and staff to vaccinate more Americans, AP reports.

    "You have to pick your battles here," said Jeffrey Engel of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. "Everyone would agree that if you have one public health nurse, you're going to use that person for vaccination, not testing."

    Why experts are worried about the drop in testing

    But experts say the drop in testing comes at a time when the country should be relying on coronavirus tests to contain the pathogen's spread and prevent outbreaks involving new, more-transmissible coronavirus variants.

    "It's shocking how quickly we've gone from moving at 100 miles an hour to about 25," said Clemens Hong, who leads Los Angeles County's coronavirus testing operation. Hong said he understands "[e]veryone is hopeful for rapid, widespread vaccinations," but that "[w]e just don't have enough people who are immune to [the coronavirus] to rule out another surge."

    Jessica Malaty, the COVID Tracking Project's science communications lead, said, "It's incredibly counterintuitive for testing to be dropping in general, especially when we know that we're not past the point of feeling like the worst is behind us. It's also frustrating that tests are being unused."

    Other experts, however, feel the decline in testing is not a significant cause for concern. They argue that in most parts of the country, coronavirus testing was never effectively used to quickly identify infected patients, trace their contacts, and isolate them, AP reports.

    In the winter, for example, many Americans had to wait days for their test results, which largely rendered them useless for disease containment and may have caused some Americans to lose interest in getting tested, Michael Mina of Harvard University said. "It doesn't exactly give you a lot of gratifying, immediate feedback," Mina said. "So people's willingness or interest in getting tested starts to go down."

    Nevertheless, U.S. test manufacturers are still ramping up production, AP reports, and some experts say testing will play a key role in building the public's confidence when reopening schools. For example, according to AP, Minnesota last week started urging families to get tested for the coronavirus every two weeks through the school year as more students returned for in-person instruction.

    "Schools have asked themselves, justifiably, 'Is the juice worth the squeeze to set up a big testing effort?'" Mike Magee—CEO of the nonprofit Chiefs for Change, which advises school districts in more than 25 states—said. "Our message to the school systems we work with is: 'Yes, you need to stand up comprehensive testing because you're going to need it'" (Associated Press/Modern Healthcare, 2/27; Tompkins/McDonnell Nieto del Rio, New York Times, 3/1; Vann, ABC News, 3/2).

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