Five Facts About Covid-19 Testing

The United States is approaching a million Covid-19 tests a day, but even that pace falls far short of what’s needed to quell the pandemic. Efforts to re-open schools and businesses are creating an enormous demand for testing and frequent retesting.

  1. Two basic tests try to detect current or past infections.

Two basic types of tests are used to detect Covid-19. A viral test is meant to tell if someone is currently infected. Negative results, however, can’t predict whether the person might contract the virus a short time later, so vigilance requires frequent re-testing. An antibody test gauges whether someone has had a past infection (with or without symptoms). It’s unclear the extent to which a past infection will protect someone from re-infection. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized 173 test methods, including 27 antibody tests.

  1. Current U.S. testing falls far short of targets.

Nationwide testing has ramped up to about 800,000 a day. Even that pace, however, falls well below what experts say is needed to get the pandemic under control. Various models generate different (and changing) targets, but all are high. The Harvard Global Health Institute says about 1.9 million daily tests are needed. The Rockefeller Foundation sets a goal of nearly 30 million a week, or more than 4 million a day.

  1. Fast and widespread testing is crucial to taming the pandemic.

Without fast, widespread and accurate testing, health officials can’t detect and try to isolate enough infected people to stop Covid-19’s rapid spread. NBC News says experts “blame a lack of diagnostic tests for the failure to stop the pandemic.” “We don't have nearly enough tests,’ says Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “The delays in the current testing system render much of the testing we're doing right now relatively ineffective for actually controlling the pandemic.”

  1. Safely re-opening society requires an enormous amount of testing.

For businesses, schools, etc., to safely re-open, their workers and clients must steadily be tested and re-tested for Covid-19, a challenge the nation cannot yet meet. Besides these millions who must be tested for public safety, many other Americans simply want to know if they have the virus, and thus seek tests even if they lack symptoms or haven’t knowingly been exposed to sick people. The combined demand is so great, Axios concluded in a recent report, it’s possible that “frequent testing solely to help open businesses or schools just isn't feasible.”

  1. The current state-by-state response lacks national coordination and consistency.

The United States’ approach to testing is much more decentralized than that of other advanced countries. Each state is largely left to set its own targets and strategies. State policies vary greatly on how aggressively to test and when and how to open businesses. Harvard public health specialist Barry Bloom says the difference between the U.S. and nations where the pandemic appears to be controlled “is that those countries had uniform national policies and didn’t lift lockdowns until case numbers were very low.” Widespread and accurate testing is essential to knowing the number of cases.


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