DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR has new data this morning. It reveals that some states finally are catching up on COVID testing. And that is crucially important at a time when the virus is spreading faster than ever, also killing record numbers of people. We've been tracking the data in partnership with Harvard and Brown Universities. And NPR's Rob Stein is here to tell us about it. Rob, good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So how much better have these testing levels gotten in the U.S.?
STEIN: You know, things have gotten way better. There are lots more tests out there these days. You know, people can even test themselves at home now. More than 234 million tests have now been done. And the U.S. is doing about 2 million tests a day now, so big improvements.
GREENE: I mean, early on, you were talking about the standards we needed to sort of meet for the amount of testing. Is this enough now, can we say?
STEIN: So according to the new analysis this team at Harvard and Brown just did for NPR, the U.S. is finally just about hitting the target for the very basic amount of tested needed nationally. That's testing everyone who has symptoms and at least two of their contacts. That would be about 2 million tests a day. But there are two big caveats about that. No. 1, there's still a lot of variation around the country. According to this analysis, 12 states plus the District of Columbia are finally doing enough of that kind of testing. They are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Vermont. And about another nine are very close.
GREENE: OK. You definitely listed far fewer than 50 states there. It sounds like...
GREENE: ...There is a lot of variation.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So the remaining 29 states aren't even close. And this second big caveat - this is a big one - is that 2 million tests a day is far below what's really needed, and that's to test lots of people without symptoms because, you know, they're a huge reason the virus is spreading so fast. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.
ASHISH JHA: We know that about half the spread happens from people who have no symptoms at all. And that has been the Achilles' heel of our entire disease outbreak control is that we've really never had a strategy for how to identify asymptomatic people.
GREENE: So how much more testing do we need to spot people who don't have symptoms, Rob?
STEIN: So according to this analysis, the U.S. would need at least 6 million tests a day at a very bare minimum. That would test 20% of students and teachers in K-12 every week. Test college students, prisoners and guards, health care workers and first responders weekly, and nursing home residents and staff twice a week. Here's what Dr. Thomas Tsai from Harvard says this could mean.
THOMAS TSAI: It means that students can return to school safely, nursing home residents and family members know that their loved ones in nursing homes and the people who work in nursing homes can do so safely - reducing transmissions in prisons, providing enough testing so health care workers don't have to go to work and wonder if they have COVID or not.
STEIN: Now, the country would need even more than that to really be able to safely get life back to normal. But this would at least be a start and help as more and more people get vaccinated and testing ramps up even more.
GREENE: So how realistic, though, is that, that that might happen?
STEIN: Well, you know, the incoming Biden administration is talking about launching a new nationally coordinated strategy to boost testing. And, you know, there are lots of cheap, new, fast tests that are becoming available. So you know, it is within reach. Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins says that's especially important because right now the opposite is actually happening with testing.
JENNIFER NUZZO: Testing is slowing in the United States. We're hearing reports of shortages once again and test turnaround time increasing. I mean, all of the warning signs are there that this is something - you know, now is the time to take this seriously and to fix this problem for good.
STEIN: Yeah. So the question is whether Congress will come up with the billions of dollars needed to ramp up testing to help blunt the toll of what could be a very grim winter we're going into right now.
GREENE: All right. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.
STEIN: You bet, David.
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