U.S. Turning the Corner on Coronavirus Testing

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A staff member of a medical center checks the temperature of a patient at a testing site for COVID-19 coronavirus in Paris as the spread of the coronavirus continues in France, March 30, 2020. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

More than 550,000 tests were administered in the U.S. this past weekend, marking a turning point in the fight against the coronavirus. The first phase of the domestic outbreak was characterized by severe testing constraints, due in large part to tainted CDC testing kits and onerous FDA regulations barring private labs from developing tests. Since the FDA allowed private labs to diagnose the virus in late February, the U.S. has struggled to reach the testing capacity required to roll back economic shutdowns and physical-distancing measures.

That appears to be changing. At the rate of the past few days, the U.S. has roughly doubled its testing capacity since last week. With 1.5 million tests reported last week, the U.S. has passed former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s initial threshold of 750,000 weekly tests to begin rolling back physical-distancing measures. Gottlieb has since suggested that a much higher number will be necessary to reopen the economy. Economist Paul Romer puts the number at 2 million tests a day, or 14 million a week, far more than the U.S. is currently conducting. While we have a long way to go, the recent increase in testing bodes well for the U.S.’s ability to relax the national shutdown.

Chart: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project

With more testing comes more confirmed cases: More than 40,000 patients tested positive on Saturday alone, the largest single-day increase. However, that number dipped on Sunday, and the positive rate has declined from a consistent rate of 20 percent to 17.6 percent as of Sunday.

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Chart: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project

Meanwhile, fewer patients are dying from the disease. On Sunday, deaths fell to their lowest daily level since early April. With fewer hospitalizations nationally, the mortality rate should continue to decline modestly.

Chart: Daniel Tenreiro
Data: COVID Tracking Project


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