There was something curiously absent from Donald Trump’s new “Opening Up America Again” plan: coronavirus testing guidelines.
Instead, states are allowed to move through a three-phase plan of lifting lockdown measures when they’ve seen a decrease in the number of new cases.
But that’s the wrong metric to focus on when it comes to evaluating the scope of this epidemic.
More testing could cause an increase in daily new cases, but it provides a better picture of how bad a coronavirus outbreak is in a particular area.
In regions where the virus is under control, a larger number of tests should yield a lower positivity rate. The positivity rate is the number of people who test positive for coronavirus compared to the total number of tests.
If coronavirus were truly under control, casting a wider testing net should produce more negative results – and a lower positivity rate. That hasn’t been the case in the United States.
The nation’s positivity rate is currently 20% after testing around 1% of the total population. What’s more, America ramped up its coronavirus testing significantly over the past month, but the rate of positives went up.
Compare that to other countries with similar testing percentages, and the case for reopening the economy begins to flounder. Among the world’s wealthy economies, only Britain’s 30% positivity rate is higher. Even Italy, whose outbreak was one of the worst in the world, has a positivity rate of just 15%.
That suggests that in America, only people with a high probability of having coronavirus are being tested. There are likely many people with mild symptoms – or no symptoms at all – who aren’t being counted. Evaluating “Open Up America Again” in that light exposes the danger of allowing states to open without adequate testing.
Speaking about his plans on Thursday, President Trump noted that some states would be able to open ahead of May 1 , and several others who were “in good shape” could open at the end of the month.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine says his state will be ready to open on May 1. As of Thursday, the state had conducted roughly 74,000 tests, yielding a positivity rate of 11%. That’s just 4 percentage points lower than Italy’s.
In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has said he hopes to start opening on April 26 when his state’s stay-at-home order expires. Colorado’s positivity rate stands at 21% .
These states have tested 0.6% and 0.7% of their populations, respectively.
Contrast this with Europe’s lockdown exit strategy.
In Germany, the number of coronavirus tests conducted is nearing 2 million, or roughly 2.5% of the nation’s population. The positivity rate is approximately 8%.
According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that’s comforting enough to start lifting some lockdown measures while continuing to ramp up testing.
Yet when Germany started easing restrictions, the number of new cases rose – as did the daily death toll. This underscores the delicate balance between economic survival and managing public health.
In Spain, where some business activity resumed this week, the number of coronavirus cases saw its largest increase in nearly a week.
The bottom line? Coronavirus cases will rise when the U.S. economy starts to open. Without adequate testing and tracking, that could quickly evolve from a small tradeoff for economic growth into another health crisis.