Rapid Progress On COVID Testing

Brian Sullivan writes:

The CDC’s failure to roll-out a reliable and widely available Wuhan virus test kit and the FDA’s subsequent slowness in allowing other labs to launch tests dominated news coverage this past month. Testing capacity also has served as the media’s primary metric to judge the federal government’s response to the crisis. So, it is important to evaluate where the country stands now.

The chart below shows the rapid increase in testing capacity over the past three weeks, according to data collected by The COVID Tracking Project website.

The US performed 44,068 tests on March 21st, compared to 7,174 tests run on March 14th, a six-fold increase in just one week. Over 182,000 tests have now been run in the US as of March 21st. By comparison, the countries with the next highest test rate – South Korea and Germany – have the capacity to run 15,000 and 20,000 tests per day, respectively. By next Saturday, the US daily test capacity will likely be 100,000 – 125,000, approaching 1 million tests per week. This would give the US well more test capacity per capita than any other country in the world.

Another criticism of the testing approach in the US has focused on the test backlog. This was a legitimate criticism. For the first week of March, tests pending results represented 49% of the daily tests run. Last week, pending tests represented only 11% of daily tests run, a four-fifths decrease. Another sign of good progress on the testing front.

In a country where the media sought to inform the public, this boom in test capacity and reduction in backlog rates would get a lot of attention.

If critics of the current administration are to be believed, testing is the best metric upon which to judge the Administration’s response to this epidemic. It is certainly one metric to use. But its importance is somewhat belied by the per capita death rates in these two countries relative to the US. Even though South Korea and Germany have each run at least 10-fold more tests per capita than the US, they each have a significantly higher per capita death rate than the US. If asked to choose at the beginning of March between fewer deaths or more tests per capita than other countries, does anyone doubt which one Americans would prefer?

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