The decline in coronavirus testing in many southern and Great Plains states is making it harder to know how far the virus can spread in those states, even as restrictions are lifted and residents return to daily life, according to experts.
States in both regions report few new cases relative to their population, compared to hardest-hit states like Michigan or New York. But they also test a lot fewer people.
Kansas, for example, is currently testing about 60 people per day per 100,000 population, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and slightly more in Alabama. The situation is similar in Iowa, Mississippi and elsewhere.
In contrast, New York City performs an average of 1,200 tests per day per 100,000 and Rhode Island 1,677 per 100,000.
Tests have been declining in Kansas since Jan. 1, even though hospitalizations were at their highest level in the pandemic, according to Tami Gurley, co-chair of the virus task force at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The state now tests fewer relative to its population than any other state except Idaho.
The tests they do in these low-rate states detect viruses.
Twelve percent of Kansas coronavirus tests come back positive. Alabama’s positivity rate is 12.8%. The rate in Idaho is 27.3%, the highest in the country. In New York, it’s only 3.5%.
So, in states that perform relatively few tests, their daily number of cases may be low in part because asymptomatic or mild symptom cases go undetected.
Ms Gurley says she is monitoring hospitalizations closely, which is a better indicator of the spread of the virus than reports of new cases.
“We think people are more focused on vaccines than testing,” she said. “It is definitely more difficult to know where we are going. We feel like we’re at the point of another spike in cases. “
Many states in the South and Midwest have relaxed their restrictions, including mask warrants, although national data indicates that a further increase in cases could occur, according to Edward Trapido, epidemiologist and associate dean for research at Louisiana. State University School of Public Health.
And many states are diverting resources from testing to bolster vaccination efforts and meet President Biden’s goal of making all adult Americans eligible for a vaccine by May 1.
As a result, Dr Trapido said, in many places these days only the sickest patients seek a coronavirus test.
“With the widespread use of vaccines, people feel comfortable not being tested,” he said. “A natural experiment is underway. It’s a battle between getting people vaccinated and keeping the positive percentage low. When I see a slight change in the upward curve, I am alarmed. “
Ms Gurley said the shift in focus on testing and vaccination could stem in part from widespread public fatigue with pandemic precautions and the political imperative in many states to reopen quickly.
If all you want to do is prevent deaths from the virus, that may make sense, she said, but “if your end goal is to prevent the spread, we need more testing. “