Could the Low Testing Numbers Be Telling Us that COVID-19 Is Receding?

by James A. Bacon

Just a couple of weeks ago — under surreal COVID time, who knows how long ago it really was — Governor Ralph Northam told Virginians that he wanted to see 10,000 or more tests per day before relaxing his Vulcan Death Grip on the state economy. With the exception of a single day, a statistical anomaly caused by a catch-up in the reporting of data, Virginia has fallen short of that 10,000 benchmark. Thankfully, the Governor has ignored his own dictum and permitted a timid incremental rollback of his emergency restrictions — not enough to make a big difference, but a step in the right direction.

Judging by the time dedicated to the subject on cable television, there is a national mania for testing. More testing and contact tracing are absolutely imperative if we’re to get out of this COVID-19 mess alive. Perhaps that’s true. If it is, the Northam administration is falling on its face. Testing, rather than inching closer to that 10,000 threshhold over the past couple of weeks, has been trending down, as can be seen plainly in this chart.

Counting the number of tests is more difficult than one would think. For a long time, the Virginia Department of Health was not capturing tests performed by private labs. More recently, it backtracked on lumping together antibody tests with RNA tests. Whatever the case, it is clear that Virginia has yet to reach the 10,000 benchmark.

Here’s the point where readers no doubt expect me to lambaste the Northam team for another administrative failure. I hate to disappoint, but disappoint I must.

Clearly, the Northam COVID-19 team got off to a slow start in (a) ramping up testing capacity by state hospitals and the state lab, and (b) integrating the tests of private labs into its database. But we’ve moved beyond that now. Those wrinkles have been ironed out. And we’re still nowhere near 10,000 tests per day.

What if the explanation isn’t a lack of testing capacity? What if the explanation is a lack of people asking for tests? What if there aren’t more tests now because there’s no increase in the number of people experiencing flu-like or COVID-like symptoms? What if… what if viruses of any kind just aren’t spreading as rapidly as the weather warms up and people spend more time outdoors?

The state lab and hospitals don’t test the population at random. They reserve their capacity for high priorities such as patients admitted to hospitals, front-line medical workers, and people confined to congregate communities such as nursing homes and prisons — as they should.

A better measure of “community spread” — the prevalence of the virus in the general population — comes from private lab tests. These tests come at the request of doctors responding to patients with flu or COVID-like symptoms or businesses testing employees to safeguard the workplace. This is not a purely random sampling either, but it’s more random than what’s coming from the state labs and hospitals. My conjecture is that the decline in the number of daily tests overall may reflect a decline in this population-at-large testing.

In theory, this proposition should be easy to confirm or rebut. All it would take is for the Virginia Department of Health to distinguish between the number of private lab tests and public lab tests. There is no shortage of private lab testing capacity. If the number of tests generated by private labs is shrinking, then almost certainly the reason is that the prevalence of the virus in the general population is receding.

That would be a good thing to know.

One would think it would be in the Northam administration’s self interest to find out. The inability to meet the 10,000-test threshhold could be politically embarrassment. Republican legislators could portray it as another failure of an inept administration. But if the reason for the stalling testing numbers is that the virus is receding, the Northamites would have a ready-made excuse, and the Governor could declare that his policies are, in fact, working. And the groundwork would be laid for moving to Phase 2 of withdrawing the Vulcan Death Grip, which is far more important than the scoring of political points.

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42 responses to “Could the Low Testing Numbers Be Telling Us that COVID-19 Is Receding?

  1. The testing shortfall IS curious and, it’s not like we’re not testing for asymptomatic at some places:

    1. – nursing homes
    2. – prisons
    3. – meat packing plants
    4. – first responders
    5. – hospital personnel
    6. – the White House

    One would think that other workplaces would also want to do that kind of testing – to quickly identify asymptomatic workers before they infect other workers especially in workplaces like grocery stores and other high traffic businesses and that contact tracing is also needed.

    and of course in smaller businesses like restaurants where one infected worker could essentially cause the business to shut down if infection spreads to other workers or patrons.

    So this is not happening under the aegis of the Gov or VDH apparently.

    And Virginia is not the only state where it’s not happening either

    so what’s the reason?

    It’s becoming increasingly clear that Virginia does not have an “A” team in place… but again, they’re not by themselves…

    One might speculate that the scope and scale of the pandemic is way beyond what agencies like VDH were every conceived to operate…

    there must be something in common though – between the states that are not testing asymptomatic/contact tracing.

    We keep hearing there will be an “army” – that thousands will have to be hired. Have we actually seen that happen?

    Not in Fredericksburg, where we are still seeing “outbreaks” and VDH still is not identifying the business and the last one was classified as a business with more than 100 employees… there are not many businesses that big that are not grocery stores… but who knows since apparently it’s the policy of VDH to not identify them.

  2. You may be right. However, wouldn’t it be better to look at the actual results of the states that have aggressively reopened? I believe Texas began reopening on May 1 with two subsequent expanded reopening phases – one today.

    How is the Texas effort going?

  3. It was discouraging to read in the RTD this weekend about people who could go back to work with a test, but could not afford it. With the $3 trillion the federal government is spending, nothing was set up to truly make at least this test free, even for those without insurance or government-paid coverage?

    DJ: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/individual-states/texas

    Texas holding on….don’t know how much that data lags. Spoke to my son in San Antonio and no sign of roof falling in as of Saturday AM.

    • I’m shocked. I would think the Feds should cover it and one would think the employers would – certainly ones like Walmart, McDonalds, etc.

      I would think that any responsible employer would want to test their workforce – once a week …

      The pro sports teams are all going to test, right?

      is money the reason we are not testing?

    • Doesn’t Virginia have one or more rainy day funds? It seems to me that the cost of a test to get a person back to work would pay for itself pretty quickly in decreased benefits and resumed taxes.

      Apparently, in Milwaukee, anybody can get a free Coronavirus test who wants one.

      https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/2020/05/13/milwaukee-coronavirus-test-sites-near-me-how-much-covid-19-testing-cost-wisconsin-symptoms-doctor/3115922001/

      • The Secretary of Finance said the state’s first priority for its share of the federal money for COVID-19 expenses would be testing. No, word yet on the details–i.e. offering free tests to everyone, free tests to the uninsured, or some other use. I continue to be astonished by the lack of planning. A plan for random testing should be in place now, to give us a better idea of whether the virus is receding, rather than having to guess or draw conclusions from other data.

        • I do NOT think tests should be available to ANYONE just for giggles and grins or curiosity.

          If we are going to expand testing – it has to be for a direct purpose of helping us to open up the economy – not just to satisfy some folks worries… or curiosities.

          Random testing – done by VDH not folks who are “volunteering”

          and workplace testing

          and contact tracing – for both…

          It’s becoming clear that “we” – both govt and civilians don’t really have a cogent idea about the purpose of testing… and perhaps that’s the problem?

          I dunno… but tests are not cheap and the resources itself is limited and has been in short supply.

          Every test should have a specific purpose – not just whim.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I would prefer Dr. McCoy over Dr. Northam as our governor.

  5. Who?

  6. Wake up people. America is 5% of the world’s population and 30% of the COV2 deaths. We’re not doing something right, and I doubt aggressively passing to one another is not that something right.

    Financial Times, a liberal rag, estimates that US COV2 deaths are probably 60% under reported since the CDC is not accounting for the spike in death rate.

    • What’s to wake up, the data is incorrect. It’s based off the assumption that China is provide valid numbers. They aren’t and most likely never will.

      Several states are having to revise their COVID-19 deaths as a result of overestimating.

      We don’t know the numbers, we don’t know when it arrived so any mortality rate is based off fallacious data.

      The only way to determine the spread would be a Nation Wide antibody test, that would provide you with valid data to determine it’s spread.

      • I don’t think we really know which countries and which states are reporting correct info.

        Why do we assume some are and others not without any kind of more proof other than what we suspect or what some folks claim?

        • If you’re going to assume that Italy, Germany and the like are suppressing their numbers like Russia, NorKo and China you’re out of touch.

          China has been suppressing SARS-COV-2 since the beginning. There is data out there indicating that transmission and infection outside of Chinese shores took place in December if not earlier.

          Their estimation as well as what they told the WHO to say, indicate that didn’t occur till Jan. at best.

          This isn’t 1918, we aren’t at War where the Allies suppressed their numbers to keep an edge on the Axis.

          Wuhan has a population of 11.08 million with a death toll of 2,535. That’s statistically improbable.
          (For some perspective NYC 8.399 million 15,786 deaths)

          https://time.com/5813628/china-coronavirus-statistics-wuhan/

          If you aren’t going to bother to construct a serious question that isn’t easily answered by publicly available data, why ask the question.

          • re: ” Wuhan has a population of 11.08 million with a death toll of 2,535. That’s statistically improbable.
            (For some perspective NYC 8.399 million 15,786 deaths)”

            Any more or less than South Korea or Sweden?

            I truly don’t know but I also suspect that others do not either.

            We have in the US some widely different numbers also… Georgia went relaxed restrictions first – has one of the lowest rates while Texas which just not relaxed has a much higher rate.

            Are those numbers right?

          • Nancy_Naive

            The author of th FT article was on MSNBC this AM. He explained that if — IF — the CDC reported COV2 as they do the flu, the 89,000 count (hospital, attended, tested) would provide a lower bound. They then remove those, and the sudden increase in deaths from, oh say Georgia rednecks shooting black joggers, and produce a likely upper bound from the increase in the death rate. Applying the flu reporting method would result in an upper bound roughly 60% higher.

          • Yeah but NN.. that totally screws up the idea that someone can figure all this out by “reading”….

        • None of that has a lick to do with suppressing data.

          China actively suppressed data until they could no longer, if you’re not going to bother to read the articles your provided I’ll stop providing them and stop taking anything out you seriously (side I don’t to begin with).

          South Korea and Sweden have no reason to suppress their data, they are dictatorships.

          • At the end – how do you know? By reading media articles and using your intuition ?

            South Korea and Sweden are “dictatorships”?

            And I should believe you, why?

          • At the end how do I know, I have the ability to read and do math. I read lots of things to include medical journals on the topic.

            PS this is just an exercise to excuse your cohort because you’re views align. She can fight her own battles, if she cannot perhaps she shouldn’t comment.

            Oh goodness, a typo I’m sorry. I can’t correct it, but it should say aren’t.

            I don’t care if you believe me or not, the facts on my side they aren’t on yours.

            I mean you won’t even bother to read articles that prove contrary to your opinion, so what’s the point?

          • The ability to read and do math? Are you kidding?

            Where do you get your info and how do you know it is correct?

            because you can read and do math?

            and because you can read and do math you say Sweden is a dictatorship?

            something is missing here… because a lot of other people can ALSO read and do math and they come up with different answers.

            how can that be?

          • Well consider I address the Sweden South Korea issue in my comment, do I need to make it bold for ya?

            “Oh goodness, a typo I’m sorry. I can’t correct it, but it should say aren’t.”

            I gave a source already, I know you didn’t read it because of the time stamp on your response. If you’re not going to read what you’re provided what’s the point of providing anything.

            The difference is other people aren’t parroting Chinese propaganda like yourself and Nancy.

            To the point, Nancy didn’t actually quote a FT article, the actual article which I found and sourced indicated the 60% was for the entire Globe, not the US alone. So you were saying about reading?

          • Actually no parroting anything but expressing doubts that we know for sure about any country and whether dictatorship or not – there are differences in how they report as well as political considerations also.

            But several countries have reported very low numbers – Sweden is one, so is South Korea and Singapore and New Zealand… and we know that the virus doesn’t care about borders and yet we have these differences – even among US states.

            That is not something most folks can totally explain by “reading” and understanding math, but so be it for you, I see now how you arrive at some of your views.

          • Sweden has reported 30k cases out of a population of ~10 million. They are operating by the adage if you’re at risk stay home and let the healthy gain immunity to protect you (what a vaccine supplements).

            Yes, the virus doesn’t care about boarders but I wasn’t away that islands had boarders. I also wasn’t aware that when they stopped all travel the virus could catch the wind and make it there. Those countries have nothing to gain from deflating their numbers.

            I arrive at my views via facts, obviously those aren’t something you’re familiar with, and again you’re parroting Chinese Prop either my choice or lack of knowledge.

            https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/business/china-coronavirusvite -propaganda.html

            https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/27/chinese-propaganda-covid-19-grows-us-social-media-must-act/

            https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28632/beware-of-china-s-coronavirus-propaganda

          • Didn’t the virus come to the US from Europe also (by air)?

    • I wonder how much the deaths in other countries — China, say — are under-reported, too.

      • Well, let’s go with the FT 60% underreport. So, we’re at 150,000.
        Now let’s assume we aren’t screwing up and we are not so far out of whack.
        Well that means 150,000 is 5% of the dead, commensurate with our share of the world’s population.

        That’s 3,000,000 dead from COV2. I dunno about you but if this thing has killed 3 million and not just 300 thousand then shouldn’t Northam lock us all in a closet?

        Now about that haircut you want, or Kerry’s suntan, how about I cut you checks and you take out $1M life insurance policies with me as the beneficiary… I feel lucky.

        • more blasphemy! Something very bad has happened and someone has to be responsible… all this “analysis” is akin to subterfuge.

          and GAWD NO – don’t give Northam any more power than he already has – geeze.

        • Just an FYI, the FT indication of a 60% higher death toll is regarding global counts. That’s a far cry from saying the US as a whole is under-reporting.

          https://www.ft.com/content/6bd88b7d-3386-4543-b2e9-0d5c6fac846c

          If you’re going to make claims, you should at least have the common decencies to validate them with sources. However, if you would have done that it would have been evident you were being disingenuous.

          “Now about that haircut you want, or Kerry’s suntan, how about I cut you checks and you take out $1M life insurance policies with me as the beneficiary… I feel lucky.”

          I would feel luck that any comment you make is fallacious as best, considering the limited interaction I’ve had and you’ve yet to make a true statement.

    • Eight developed countries have higher COVID19 deaths per million people than the US. What are the Belgians and Irish doing wrong/

      https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

      • “What are the Belgians and Irish doing wrong?” asks Don wisely.

        Strict lock-downs are one answer as to what they are doing wrong, and its only going to get worse for them, because they don’t know how to get out of the fix they put themselves in, without driving numbers ever higher.

        For competence in lieu of ignorance, look at their neighbors to the north, Netherlands, who knew what they were doing from the start, unlike New York that also had not a clue so made matters far worse for its citizens.

      • You look younger than James and Kerry. The ROI will be better. ?

    • NN: We’re 30% of the worlds COV2 deaths because it seems that everyone in America who has died since February has been listed as a COV2 death!

  7. There’s been a plan in place in Richmond to test the hosuing project residents. It seems they figured it out using government money. It seems like that took priority over the other scenarios listed above.

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