The U.S. Doesn't Have Nearly Enough Coronavirus Tests to Open the Economy

Experts say we need to be testing more than three times as many people to safely lift restrictions.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US
coronavirus testing
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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The U.S. needs to triple its coronavirus testing if it hopes to safely reopen the economy in a month, according to researchers at Harvard University.

The U.S. is currently testing roughly 150,000 people a day for COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project, an uptick from about 100,000 daily at the end of March. But that’s still far short of per capita testing happening in other countries, and it’s nowhere near the 500,000 to 700,000 daily tests that Harvard University researchers say must be administered if the U.S. hopes to reopen its economy by mid-May.


Currently, about 20 percent of coronavirus tests are turning up positive results in the U.S. That’s double the 10% maximum threshold recommended by World Health Organization as a guideline for knowing how many people have the coronavirus.

And the high positive rate is an indication that many people with the disease still aren’t being tested.

“If you have a very high positive rate, it means that there are probably a good number of people out there who have the disease who you haven’t tested,” Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the New York Times. “You want to drive the positive rate down, because the fundamental element of keeping our economy open is making sure you’re identifying as many infected people as possible and isolating them.”

To reach the per capita testing levels of South Korea, which has effectively contained the virus by contact tracing infections, the U.S. would need to test 1 million people daily, according to a separate study.

In spite of this guidance, and an ongoing dearth of adequate coronavirus testing nationally, President Trump has repeatedly floated May 1 as a target date for some states to reopen their economies. And some state leaders are following suit, already moving to loosen coronavirus restrictions.

On Friday, Texas became the first state to announce a plan to begin partially lifting coronavirus restrictions, even though the state was one of the last to declare a shelter-at-home policy and is still far behind in testing.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the plan would go in stages, with parks reopening, curbside pickup for retail and elective surgeries restarting immediately with medical professionals guiding further decisions on what could be done safely, with more potential relaxations of restrictions occurring on April 27.

"Opening in Texas must occur in stages," Abbott said during his briefing Friday. "Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once on May 1.”

Florida also allowed localities to reopen beaches and parks on Friday, and Minnesota has indicated it might loosen some restrictions in the coming days.

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Cover: A woman's blood is collected for testing of coronavirus antibodies at a drive through testing site in Hempstead, N.Y., Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)