He’s only half-right here, and “badge of honor” is an unfortunate way to describe anything related to the feds’ COVID-19 response, but this answer represents notable progress from him complaining last week that maybe testing is overrated. At least he’s recognizing now that more testing is a good thing even if it pushes the official case count up. Watch, then read on.
He’s right that we’ve done more total testing than any other country, almost twice as many as second-place Russia. And he’s definitely right that part of the reason we’re seeing cases go up is because our testing capacity has expanded, which means we’re now detecting some infections that would go undetected in countries with less robust capacity (or in the U.S. itself two months ago, when our testing levels were garbage). But the important metric in testing is tests per capita, which lets us compare countries with large populations to smaller ones. Take a group of one million Americans and a group of one millions Italians, say; how many tests are being done within each group?
In Italy it’s 51,000. Here it’s 38,000. The leader of the pack among larger western nations, Denmark, is testing 84,000 per million. No doubt America is still missing some new cases because our testing isn’t as comprehensive as theirs is.
But it’s getting better. In fact, let’s lay down a marker here so that we can look back in a month or so and see how much progress we’ve made relative to the rest of the world. At the moment the U.S. ranks 38th among all nations in testing per capita according to Worldometer, but that’s misleading because some of the countries ahead of us are small nations. Among those with populations of five million or more, we’re 16th. (A few other nations ahead of us in testing per capita fall just shy of five million.) But look at this trendline in U.S. testing over the past 12 days:
We’ve added 25 percent more capacity in less than two weeks. With the development of antigen tests and saliva tests, who knows how much higher it’ll be in two months and where we’ll stand relative to other countries. The uptick in testing has also driven down the positivity rate, which is good news as the country reopens for business:
US daily numbers via @COVID19Tracking
Newly reported deaths
One week ago (5/12): 1,543
Newly reported cases
Newly reported tests
Positive test rate
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) May 19, 2020
Meanwhile, the positive test rate continues to decline. Over the past 7 days, it has been 6.2%, roughly half what the 7-day trailing average was on May 1 (12.1%). That may partly reflect more widespread availability of testing in the general population but still a good sign.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) May 19, 2020
It wasn’t long ago when 20 percent of Americans tested each day for COVID-19 were turning up positive. That figure has now been cut by three-quarters. Whether it’s a product of fewer active infections out there or much greater testing capacity is hard to say — probably some of both — but it suggests that our ability to detect infections is increasing more quickly than the disease is spreading. That’s exactly what we want as social distancing eases a little. It should give us some confidence that if an outbreak starts bubbling somewhere, we now have enough tests to spot it early. (Although that assumes that testing capacity is equal across all communities in all 50 states, which, er, isn’t the case.)
It’d be nice if the media paid more attention to the positivity rate but they’ve been resistant, preferring to focus on total cases instead. That’s potentially misleading for the reason Trump gives in the clip: In some areas, what appears to be a spike in infections is probably just a function of an increase in testing capacity. Stop what you’re doing and read Sean Trende on how misleading CNN has been recently about the supposed increase in new cases in Texas as that state reopens. CNN seems to think that the rate of infections in Texas is rising. In reality, the rate may be flat or even declining — but because there’s been much more testing in Texas recently, infections that would have gone undetected a few weeks ago are suddenly being picked up.
When you graph out the number of new cases, you see a worrisome spike. But when you graph out the positivity rate, which measures new cases against the number of new tests, you see this:
What’s more, says Trende, when you dig into the county data you see that it’s only a few counties that are experiencing a conspicuous increase in new cases (probably a result of outbreaks at meatpacking plants). In the big metro areas the number of daily new cases is flat. The supposedly ominous increase statewide, then, appears to be a more localized problem, and may not amount to a meaningful “increase” at all. It may simply be that Texas’s expanded testing is bringing into focus a picture of an epidemic that’s currently static, like putting on a new pair of glasses at an optometrist’s office and suddenly being able to read the small print on the eye chart. The letters aren’t “new”; they were always there. It’s a good thing that we can see them now!
Exit question: Are outlets like CNN deliberately distorting the outlook in states like Texas or do they mistakenly believe that case counts are the only meaningful variable here?