A health care professional swab tests a patient for coronavirus at drive-through testing outside the Emergency Room entrance at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA on March 30, 2020.
Matthew J. Lee | The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The U.S. hit a milestone this week — albeit one that came much later than promised: More than 1 million Americans have been tested for the novel coronavirus. More than 200,000 have tested positive.
And though capacity is, finally, increasing after a much-criticized government rollout of the tests, states are still reporting major backlogs in getting results. Federal guidelines prioritize hospitalized patients, health-care workers and first responders with COVID-19 symptoms because of testing’s scarcity.
Here’s a look, in charts, at where the U.S. stands in testing for the coronavirus.
New York is out front, with more than 230,000 people tested, and it’s also way ahead on a per capita basis, too, testing more than 1,200 per 100,000 people. So is Louisiana, at more than 51,000 total tests, or nearly 1,100 per 100,000 people. That’s as New Orleans’ case numbers are some of the fastest rising in the country, doubling every 1.4 days, according to Evercore ISI.
Third is Washington state, home of the first COVID-19 case detected in the U.S., at more than 1,000 test results per 100,000.
Processing chemicals in short supply
Lagging on the testing front: Texas, South Carolina, California and Oklahoma. While Texas has tested more than 50,000 people, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, that’s only 174 per 100,000 of its residents.
California’s issue lies in a massive logjam of pending tests: more than 59,000. But it’s not the only state facing backlogs; South Carolina’s state epidemiologist last week cited a shortage in the chemicals needed to process the tests to explain that state’s lag.
It may be true, as President Donald Trump said, that the U.S. has tested the most people in the world (though it’s not clear how many people China tested). But that doesn’t tell the whole story; the U.S. is also a larger country than others doing a lot of testing, namely Italy and South Korea.
Based on Thursday’s totals, the U.S. had tested 1,267,658 people, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which aggregates state-reported data. Italy had tested more than 580,000, and South Korea, more than 430,000.
But on a per capita basis, the U.S. lags them both.
Snags in testing
What’s the issue? A shortage of the materials needed to run the tests, including the chemicals, as South Carolina’s state epidemiologist noted, but also of swabs and other basic supplies. Also a shortage of personal protective equipment needed to shield people taking the samples, which require sticking a swab very far up the nose.
There’s also the fact that samples started pouring in before capacity really ramped up, creating a backlog from the start that the testing companies are still working to process.
Finally, as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx explained at Tuesday’s briefing, there’s a reluctance to switch to different platforms as they become available.
“When you put a platform out … people get dependent on it and then people don’t see there’s an availability of tests,” Birx said, noting there is a capacity of 500,000 Abbott tests available that states aren’t using, because a Roche platform had become available first.
Abbott is now releasing a new, point-of-care test that can provide results in five to 15 minutes; it had previously launched COVID-19 testing on another platform that processes samples in hospital and academic medical center labs.
Hospital labs are in the process of getting up and running to handle high volumes of those tests, “and we expect to see increased consumption of these tests very soon,” a company spokeswoman said.
“We have to figure out how do we create awareness,” Birx said. “Right now there’s over half a million tests that are not being utilized.”