41 States Are Not Doing Enough Testing to Relax Social Distancing Measures, New Analysis Shows

Most United States regions are not conducting enough diagnostic tests to begin easing social distancing restrictions in place amid the new coronavirus outbreak, according to a new report published on Thursday.

The report, which combines analysis from National Public Radio (NPR) as well as the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), compared each U.S. state's current testing capacity with target figures determined by HGHI's recent study.

Harvard's data, originally published April 27 and amended in collaboration with NPR on Thursday, established state-specific diagnostic testing goals by weighing individual outbreak curves against actual tests conducted daily and adjusting based on population. The study's latest version suggested less than 20 percent of U.S. states have met or exceeded a testing threshold sufficient to relax social distance measures.

As NPR noted, Thursday's report noted those states—North Dakota, Utah, Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, West Virginia and Oregon—are among the nation's largest and least densely populated. In addition, each has reported much milder outbreaks of the new coronavirus as compared to other U.S. regions. Though Wisconsin had not quite reached the target testing figure set by Thursday's analysis, it was nearly there.

According to Johns Hopkins University's tracker, states meeting this testing criteria have confirmed some of the lowest total case counts in the country. Alaska, Montana, Hawaii, Wyoming, West Virginia and North Dakota rank within the nation's bottom 10 in terms of relative incidence of positive diagnoses. In contrast, states with the highest case numbers—like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan—have a considerable testing gap to fill before safely easing social distance restrictions, Thursday's analysis showed.

NPR and HGHI's new study followed a string of economic reopening procedures launched nationwide over the last two weeks. Movie theaters have resumed operations, beaches are allowing visitors, retailers are accepting customers, and some restaurants have restored in-person dining options. In total, more than half of U.S. states have either begun to reopen segments of their respective economies or have made plans to do so in the coming weeks.

Coronavirus Testing, New York
New York residents, pictured on April 30, stand six feet apart outside a Manhattan health clinic where diagnostic testing for the new coronavirus is offered. According to analysis published Thursday by NPR and the Harvard Global Health Institute, most U.S. states have not expanded testing capacity to an extend that would allow them to lift social distancing restrictions safely. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

All economic restart strategies currently mandate businesses and individuals to carry out continued mitigation and sanitation procedures to avoid an outbreak resurgence. Those strategies require ongoing physical distancing protocols as well as group gathering restrictions, at minimum. Still, a New York Times report published Thursday pointed out that most states endeavoring to reopen do not meet requirements outlined by the White House's national economic reopening plan, which recommends states refrain from lifting lockdown regulations until a clear 14-day downward trend in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths due to the coronavirus is reported.

Many state administrations, particularly those governing regions hit hardest by the pandemic, have prioritized expanding diagnostic and antibody testing capacities as they draft gradual reopening plans. On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a multi-state partnership between his state, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to build regional testing capabilities, acquire personal protective equipment, and ultimately move to restore state economies.