STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How much testing does the United States have now, and how much does it need to contain the pandemic? The number of new coronavirus cases has been rising sharply in some areas of this country. Public health experts say we can change that with more testing so that people can trace and isolate outbreaks. NPR and researchers at Harvard University went to analyze whether the U.S. is meeting the need, and our health correspondent Rob Stein has some new findings. Hi there, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, so in your exclusive reporting, are things any better with testing than they were?
STEIN: Yes. Coronavirus tests are easier to get in some places. And last time NPR and Harvard did this analysis, the U.S. was doing less than 250,000 tests a day, and only nine states were doing the bare minimum amount of testing the analysis estimated to be necessary to keep the virus under control. Two months later, testing has doubled to about 500,000 tests a day. And according to our new analysis, the number of states now doing enough testing to keep the virus in check has increased from nine to 18, plus Washington, D.C. So that's progress.
INSKEEP: Although is that enough progress?
STEIN: Unfortunately, it's still not even close to what we really need. More than two-thirds of states still aren't doing nearly enough testing to keep big new outbreaks from erupting - 32 states - you know, by spotting enough new infections quickly enough to track down, quarantine and test everyone else who might have caught the virus, you know, to see who needs to be isolated and snuff out any new flare-ups. But - and that's probably one big reason why we're seeing these big new surges at hot spot states across the South and West. None of the hot spot states have been doing nearly enough testing, according to this analysis.
Here's Ashish Jha. He's at the Harvard Global Health Institute.
ASHISH JHA: The surges we're seeing in large parts of the country are due in part because those states opened up too quickly and they relaxed way too much given how much virus they had in their community and they lacked testing infrastructure. These two things really go hand in hand.
INSKEEP: How much more testing is really necessary?
STEIN: At a bare minimum, the Harvard researchers estimate that the U.S. overall should double testing to about 1 million tests a day just to keep the virus at bay and, you know, get off this roller coaster of the virus seeming to be under control but then erupting again. But even that much testing - with that much testing, thousands of people would still be getting infected, and hundreds would still be dying every day.
So this new analysis adds a new dimension to answer this question, how much testing would be enough to really beat back the virus and let the country safely start to reopen without the virus flaring up again? Here's Ashish Jha again from Harvard.
JHA: What we all really want is to suppress the virus, to get the virus level so low that we don't have large numbers of people getting sick and dying and that we can open up our economy and have kids come back to school and have businesses reopen, even if it's not 100% of what it looked like before the pandemic. That's what we want.
STEIN: You know, to finally really start to get life back to normal.
INSKEEP: OK. So half a million tests per day is where we're at now. One million per day would be pretty good. What is the ideal number that would get us to suppress the virus?
STEIN: Yeah, so according to this new analysis, we need way more testing. We need 4.2 million tests per day, more than eight times what the U.S. is doing now. But that would allow the U.S. to cast a much wider net by doing much more aggressive and strategic testing, you know, target places where outbreaks often start - nursing homes, meatpacking factories, prisons - catch people who don't have any symptoms but still could be spreading the virus, like teachers, students. And according to this analysis, the overwhelming majority of states aren't anywhere close to that. But that doesn't mean it's hopeless. In fact, four states are already there - Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii and Montana. West Virginia and even one big state that had a big outbreak, New Jersey, are very close.
INSKEEP: OK. Rob, thanks for the update in the news.
STEIN: No problem, Steve. You bet.
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