For months, public health experts and federal officials have said that significantly expanding the number of coronavirus tests administered in the United States is essential to reining in the pandemic. By some estimates, several million people might need to be tested each day, including many who don’t feel sick.
But the country remains far short of that benchmark and, for the first time, the number of known tests conducted each day has fallen.
Reported daily tests trended downward for much of the last two weeks, essentially stalling the nation’s testing response. About 733,000 people have been tested each day this month on average, down from nearly 750,000 in July, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The seven-day test average dropped to 709,000 on Monday, the lowest in nearly a month, before ticking upward again at week’s end.
The trend, coming after months of steady increases in testing, may in part reflect that fewer people are seeking out tests as known cases have leveled off at more than 50,000 per day after surging this summer. But the plateau in testing may also reflect people’s frustration at the prospect of long lines and delays in getting results — as well as another fundamental problem: The nation has yet to build a robust system to test vast portions of the population, not just those seeking tests.
Six months into the pandemic, testing remains a major obstacle in America’s efforts to stop the virus. Some of the supply shortages that caused problems earlier have eased, but even after improvements, test results in some cases are still not being returned within a day or two, hindering efforts to quickly isolate patients and trace their contacts.
“We’re clearly not doing enough,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, the director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy who was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush.
Additional money for testing has been one of the issues in play amid discussions between Congress and the White House over the next coronavirus relief package.