Friday marks the start of Texas’ reopening after Governor Greg Abbott announced plans for a gradual return to normalcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Abbott says a wide variety of businesses will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity including stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and museums.
The news was cheered by supporters of Donald Trump’s plans to reopen the U.S. But some cautioned that this could be a deadly false-start that will knock America back to square one in the fight against coronavirus.
Jeremy Konyndyk is one such nay-sayer. As a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, he’s considered to be an expert in global outbreak preparedness. He pointed out that right now, the only weapon the U.S. is wielding against coronavirus is quarantine. Without that, he says the country is mostly unprepared:
We’re not remotely prepared neither in terms of the epidemiology of the outbreak in the United States, nor in terms of our preparedness capacities to begin suppressing this virus in ways other than through social distancing.
He cautioned that although the number of new cases is no longer rising exponentially in the U.S., it’s also not falling. That’s dangerous because it suggests we’ve managed to hold the number of new cases steady through strict lockdown measures. But without them, the nation is left exposed to a potentially worse second or third wave of cases.
Testing, he says, is the only way to combat the virus in the absence of lockdowns. But there’s a debate as to how much testing is actually needed. While Trump and his supporters say America’s testing capacity is adequate, the nation’s positivity rate says otherwise.
A positivity rate is the number of positive tests as a fraction of the total number of tests conducted. A high positivity rate means either a huge proportion of a population is infected, or only those who probably have the virus are being tested. Either of those scenarios supports the case for remaining under lockdown.
In the U.S., around 1% of the population has been tested with a positivity rate of 18% . For reference, Italy’s positivity rate is 15%.
The World Health Organization says a positivity rate of 10% or below suggests a country is doing enough testing to produce an accurate picture of who’s infected.
Texas’ reopening has been heavily criticized because the state has only managed to test 1% of its population. The state is reporting a positivity rate of 9% , which suggests that so far it has captured the majority of its infected inhabitants.
Other states’ testing pictures look much more dangerous as they start to reopen their economies. Georgia, for example, has already started allowing businesses to resume. The state’s positivity rate is a whopping 19% . In Colorado, hairdressers and tattoo parlors, which require close personal contact, are due to reopen on Friday. The state has a positivity rating of 21% — above the national average.
The data show that many states are rushing toward reopening without fully understanding the extent of their outbreaks. That will be a major setback not only for the individual state but for the country as a whole.
Open borders between states mean there’s still a lot of travel between neighboring regions. A spike in cases in Colorado—especially one that goes undetected because of a lack of testing—can easily spread to neighboring states.
The White House has promised to expand all 50 states’ testing capacity by providing them with enough tests to capture 2% of their populations . While that should help reduce positivity rates, it’s concerning that the figure isn’t being used at all to determine reopening timelines.
In Colorado, as testing capacity increased over the past two weeks, the positivity rate increased . That suggests that between asymptomatic people and those with a mild case, the outbreak is far larger than the data currently shows.
In Georgia, 3% of the population has been tested but the positivity rating is still extremely high, which means the full picture of the outbreak isn’t clear. Just the number of people tested isn’t enough to guarantee safe reopening, nor is the current number of cases, deaths or hospitalizations. States need to be able to show that they’re ready to reopen by proving they have a handle on their outbreak. That starts by being able to see it clearly.