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Who should be tested? There’s disagreement across the country

By Jill Riepenhoff and Lee Zurik

Originally Published: March 25, 2020

(InvestigateTV) – The number of COVID-19 tests that have been conducted vary greatly from state to state, and where you live matters.

In New Mexico, where there are 100 confirmed cases of the virus, the state has tested 326 out of every 100,000 people. The state trails only New York and Washington in their higher testing rates, 532 and 449, respectively.

But in Oklahoma, where there’s 164 cases, only 24 out of every 100,000 people have been tested.

Testing for the novel coronavirus and how those tests are counted has been an ongoing issue across the country.

As of March 25, nearly 400,000 have been completed, according to state data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project.

InvestigateTV analyzed the data to examine rates of testing across the country.

The data is among the most complete state-by-state look at testing in the U.S. But it remains incomplete because 19 states and Washington D.C. do not track the total number of COVID tests that have been processed.

Delaware, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio only report the number of positive tests.

The other states – including California and New Jersey, states with confirmed cases in the thousands – only report the number of tests conducted by their state labs.

Use the map below to see the number of tests performed per capita (per 100,000 people). Click on states to read more about where the state ranks for number of tests performed, the number of positive tests per population and other information as available from states. 

The test-counting issue adds to mixed messages coming from governors, public health experts, the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s website states that “not everyone needs to be tested.”

At a press briefing on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said, “If you don’t have symptoms, you don’t need a test.”

But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has an opposite view, believing as many people as possible should be tested.

“That is a good thing because when you identify a positive, then you can isolate that person and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Cuomo said during his Sunday press conference. “When you increase the number of tests, you’re going to increase the number of people who test positive. The numbers show exactly that.”

Public health experts agree that testing shapes the response to this crisis.

“We’re making life and death decisions based on these test results so we must be confident they are accurate,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “We need to know where the cases are and where the cases are not.”

In Michigan, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has more than doubled since Sunday. In Ohio, it’s nearly tripled in that four-day span.

But neither state tracks the total number of tests that have been administered.

“The best states out there right now and the best cities have daily reports on the number of tests,” Klausner said.

As of March 24, New York had conducted more than 103,000 tests, representing a quarter of all tests completed among the states that count them from both public and private labs.

It also leads the country in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Since late last week, private labs such as Lab Corp and Quest have reported that they have tested about 50,000 people a day, about twice as many as the prior week, according to data compiled by the American Clinical Laboratory Association based in Washington D.C.

Testing also matters because it can detect the virus before symptoms appear. Some studies have shown that someone can be infected before the onset of fevers or coughs, as detailed in a CNN report.

In Alabama, it’s difficult to know how many people have been tested because the state reports incomplete results. State law only requires private labs to report positive results, Dr. Karen Landers, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Health wrote in an email.

Some private labs do report negative tests – others don’t, Landers said.

Wendy Reems waited more than a week for the results of her test taken at a drive-thru testing site on March 17.

“My chest is quite constricted. It’s real tight,” Weems said in an interview earlier this week.

The Florence, Alabama resident felt trapped by the uncertainty.

“I don’t understand why it’s taking so long,” she said.

She learned March 25 – nine days later – that her test was negative.

But it’s unknown if it will be among the tests counted in the state numbers.