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U.S. Coronavirus Testing Still Falls Short. How's Your State Doing?


Is it safe for states to start reopening their economies? If we want to answer that question, we have to test people for COVID-19. But are states doing enough testing? We have new reporting today that shows the answer to that question broadly is no. We're citing a new analysis that researchers at Harvard conducted exclusively with NPR. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has details of that analysis. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what does the analysis show exactly?

STEIN: It's based on estimates of the size of each state's outbreak, how much testing they're doing and how much testing they'd need to do to keep their outbreaks from spinning out of control. The analysis finds that nine states do seem to be doing at least the bare minimum amount of testing they'd need to reopen. But the other 41 states, plus the District of Columbia, are still not doing enough testing according to this analysis, and many aren't even close. That means it would be super risky to relax their shutdowns to restart their economies.

KING: Rob, we've asked you this question a million times, but it seems like we always need to be reminded. Why is testing so crucial?

STEIN: So, you know, Noel, without enough testing, there's no way to make sure you can spot new infections quickly and keep the virus from roaring back in places where it's under control or protect places that haven't been hit hard yet because, you know, the virus is still out there, and most people are still vulnerable. So as states reopen, new infections could easily jump up. Here's Ashish Jha. He runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, which did the analysis with NPR.

ASHISH JHA: As cases really start climbing, hospitals start getting filled up and many, many thousands of people will end up getting sick and dying. And, ultimately, I am deeply worried that four, six, eight weeks down the road, we're going to find ourselves in the exact same place we were in in early March, and we will have to shut the economy down again.

STEIN: You know, now the amount of testing needed varies from state to state depending on the size of their outbreaks. But some states that are starting to relax, you know, like, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and maybe Colorado, they are starting to relax even though they're not doing the bare minimum of testing.

KING: So we have 41 states doing that, not doing enough testing. What about the nine states that are doing enough testing?

STEIN: Yeah. So those nine states, they look like they are doing the minimum testing they'd need or are at least very close. They're Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming and West Virginia. But it's important to understand what that means and what it doesn't mean. It means they're doing the minimum amount of testing. It doesn't mean everyone who wants or even, you know, really should be getting tested can get it, not even close. It just means it looks like they could be doing enough to keep the outbreak under control if they do try to ease up.

KING: But does that also mean that those states could safely reopen?

STEIN: You know, unfortunately, the answer is not necessarily. First of all, you know, testing is far from the only criteria for opening up. For example, states have to see a decline in cases for at least two weeks. And testing is just one weapon necessary to keep the virus in check. States also need to have enough health care workers to, you know, track down and test all the people who have had any contact with anyone who's infected and might have caught the virus. This analysis is based on the assumption that states have to test at least 10 contacts for every new case, and very few states have anything close to that capacity. Here's Ashish Jha again from Harvard.

JHA: For states that look like they're meeting their goals, I wouldn't take that as too much comfort because the number of cases will start going up. This is not the goal you want to hit and then say, OK, we're good, we're done. This is the goal you want to hit and say, OK, now we can start.

STEIN: Maybe start opening but make sure to continue to ramp up testing and have enough contact tracing capabilities.

KING: You know, Rob, the White House has been saying that the U.S. is doing more testing than any other country. This analysis shows there are shortages here. So what do public health experts say we should do?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, the Trump administration's officials point out that more than 7 million Americans have now been tested, and they're trying to ramp up tests even more. But Harvard is now estimating that the U.S. overall needs to be doing more than 900,000 tests a day, which is more than triple what the U.S. is doing. And some public health experts say the country really needs tens of millions of tests a day.

KING: Wow. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.