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Why Has Coronavirus Testing Slumped in the U.S.? It’s Complicated

From a high of nearly 14 million tests a week in early January, the pace fell to fewer than 10 million — a level not seen since October — in the week ended Feb. 24, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

March 01, 2021 / 10:30 PM IST
Registered nurse Shelly Nichols performs a COVID-19 test on Fitzpatrick Sullivan at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, on Feb. 23, 2021. From a high of nearly 14 million tests a week in early January, the pace fell to fewer than 10 million — a level not seen since October — in the week ended Feb. 24, according to the Covid Tracking Project. (PC-Rajah Bose/The New York Times)

Registered nurse Shelly Nichols performs a COVID-19 test on Fitzpatrick Sullivan at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, on Feb. 23, 2021. From a high of nearly 14 million tests a week in early January, the pace fell to fewer than 10 million — a level not seen since October — in the week ended Feb. 24, according to the Covid Tracking Project. (PC-Rajah Bose/The New York Times)

Widespread testing is crucial in controlling the spread of the coronavirus and squashing new outbreaks, experts say. But the amount of testing in the United States has fallen by 30% in recent weeks.

From a high of nearly 14 million tests a week in early January, the pace fell to fewer than 10 million — a level not seen since October — in the week ended Feb. 24, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Some areas report even sharper declines: Michigan is testing about half as many people now as it was in November, and Delaware’s state-run sites are testing about one-third as many. Los Angeles County’s sites, which were running flat out last month, tested just 35% of their capacity last week.

Experts cited a number of factors that could be contributing to the slump:

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A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

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— Fewer exposures. Since daily tallies of new coronavirus infections have fallen sharply, fewer people may be having contacts that would prompt them to seek a test.

— Less travel. The holiday rush is over, reducing the need for people to get tested before or after trips.

— Bad weather. The severe storms and Arctic temperatures that battered much of the country, from Texas to the Northeast, caused many testing sites to close temporarily.

— The vaccine rollout. Some states have shifted their limited public health resources, and their public messaging, toward vaccination efforts at the expense of testing.

— Pandemic fatigue. Some experts worry the decline may be yet another symptom of public exhaustion and frustration with pandemic precautions and safety measures.

All those forces may be at play, said Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: “My sense is that it’s probably that there are fewer options for testing, fewer communications about it, people may be perceiving that it’s less necessary — maybe they just don’t see the point any more.”

The slump in testing, at a time when a clear picture of the pandemic is still badly needed, worries some public health researchers.

“There’s nothing about the current situation that has made testing any less necessary,” Nuzzo said.

Among other things, less testing makes it harder to follow the virus’s mutations and to get ahead of variants that may be more contagious or deadly, said Dr. Rick Pescatore, the chief physician at the Delaware Division of Public Health.

“We can’t identify variants until we first identify positives,” Pescatore said.

But the decline in testing may not be a cause for alarm — and may even be a good sign — if it reflects wider progress in tamping down the pandemic, said Dr. Clemens Hong, who runs Los Angeles County’s testing program.

“The biggest reason for the drop in testing demand, I think, is the decrease in infections and spread,” Hong said. “COVID-19 is not spreading as quickly right now, which means there’s fewer people with symptoms, and also fewer people having contact with people with COVID-19. That’s just the reality.”

Across the country, new case reports have dropped sharply since mid-January. At its peak Jan. 8, the United States reported a seven-day average of over 259,000 new cases. As of Saturday, the seven-day average is less than 70,000.

Hospitalizations and deaths have followed suit, and vaccine distribution is rapidly increasing: 15% of the U.S. population has now received at least one dose.

Nonetheless, Hong said, testing remains vital to getting ahead of outbreaks.

“Even with all these declines and the rollout of the vaccines, it’s just not enough,” he said. “We don’t have enough immunity in the community to prevent another surge. We may never see a surge like we saw in December and January again, but we’ll see little pockets and little surges that will try to come to life, and we just need to put them out.”

(Authors: Lucy Tompkins and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio )/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)
New York Times

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