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 people 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. Some 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 troubling trend comes after months of steady increases in testing, and 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 even higher 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 coronavirus. 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. Now, the number of tests being given has slowed just as the nation braces for the possibility of another surge as schools reopen and cooler weather drives people indoors.
“We’re clearly not doing enough,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, the director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under former President George W. Bush.
The downward trend may turn out to be only a short-term setback: The nation reported more than 800,000 tests on Thursday and Friday. There are also limitations to the data, which is largely drawn from state health departments, some of which have recently struggled with backlogs and other issues. It may not include tests done in labs not certified by the federal government.
But according to the figures available, tests were declining in 20 states this week, and data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services showed a similar overall trend nationally.
Without a vaccine or a highly successful treatment, widespread testing is seen as a cornerstone for fighting a pandemic in which as many as 40 percent of infected people do not show symptoms and may unknowingly spread the virus. Testing a lot of people is crucial to seeing where the virus is going and…