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Most states still fall short of recommended testing levels

Matthew Perrone, Brian Witte and Gary Robertson
Associated Press

Washington – As businesses reopened Friday in more of the U.S., more than 4 out of 5 states still fall short of the COVID-19 testing levels that public health experts say are necessary to safely ease lockdowns and avoid another deadly wave of outbreaks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Rapid, widespread testing is considered essential to tracking and containing the coronavirus. But 41 states fail to test widely enough to drive their infections below a key benchmark, according to an AP analysis of metrics developed by Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

Among the states falling short are Texas and Georgia, which moved aggressively last month to reopen stores, malls, barbershops and other businesses.

A man wearing a face mask for protection against COVID-19 passes a business that has reopened in San Antonio, Thursday, May 14, 2020. Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has warned officials in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas that the cities could face lawsuits if they do not relax coronavirus measures he says go further than state law allows.

As health authorities expand testing to more people, the portion of positive results should shrink compared with the total number of people tested. The World Health Organization and other health researchers have said a percentage above 10% indicates inadequate testing. South Korea, a country praised for its rapid response, quickly pushed its positive cases to below 3%.

Most governors are moving ahead with unlocking their states, even in cases where they are not meeting broad guidelines recommended by the White House.

The first stage of reopening in Maryland was scheduled to take effect Friday evening, when some retail stores will be allowed to reopen and a stay-at-home order lifted. But some of the hardest-hit parts of the state, including the suburbs of Washington, D.C., extended restrictions for residents and businesses.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan made headlines last month when the state acquired 500,000 test kits from a South Korean company in a confidential deal, but Maryland has not had all the components needed for testing – like swabs – to meet demand. Hogan said Maryland just received swabs this week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We requested 350,000,” Hogan said Wednesday. “They’ve committed to 225,000, and I think we got 75,000 yesterday with another 125,000 that are supposedly days away, along with the tubes and the stuff that goes with them. So it’s not enough, but it helps us.”

Meanwhile, the state’s legislative leaders expressed concern about testing and contact tracing data Thursday in a letter. They have asked for full transparency on metrics involving testing, including how many full test kits the state has along with necessary materials to conduct those tests.

Researchers at Harvard University have calculated that the U.S. needs to test a minimum of 900,000 people per day to safely reopen the economy, based on the 10% positivity rate and several other key metrics. That goal is nearly three times the country’s current daily testing tally of about 360,000, according to figures compiled by the COVID Tracking Project website.

“The fact that testing has become the Achilles’ heel that has made it hard for us to have a great national response to this pandemic is a tragedy,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute. “I’d like us to have a massive amount of ubiquitous testing so that, of all the things we need to worry about, testing isn’t one of them.”

President Donald Trump insisted again this week that his administration had “met the moment” and “prevailed” on testing, even as he continued to shift responsibility for the effort to the governors. Administration officials said they will provide states with enough testing supplies to conduct about 400,000 tests per day in May and June. But that’s still less than half the total recommended by the Harvard team.

Only nine states met the daily rate recommended by Jha and his colleagues, according to the AP analysis. Most of those states are large and rural, such as Montana, Alaska, North Dakota and Wyoming. Meanwhile, states with some of the biggest testing shortfalls, including New York and New Jersey, have signaled they will keep stay-at-home orders in place.

“I really do feel there are dangers here opening up without enough tests, but I don’t feel it’s a uniform danger everywhere in the country,” Jha said.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will allow many smaller cities and rural regions of upstate New York to gradually reopen first, industry by industry, in areas that have been spared the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak. The first wave of businesses includes retail – though only for curbside or in-store pickup – along with construction and manufacturing. Cuomo also announced that beaches would be allowed to open in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

In Virginia, some nonessential businesses including hair salons reopened Friday under modified restrictions set in place by Gov. Ralph Northam. Retail stores could expand their capacity, but beaches were still off limits to sunbathers.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy will let individual shore towns decide when it comes to reopening beaches. His long-awaited guidance Thursday directed them to set occupancy limits, require 6 feet (2 meters) of space between beachgoers, except family members or couples, and prohibit groups of 10 or more from congregating on the beach. Beaches also reopened this week in Los Angeles County, with masks required.

Elsewhere in the U.S., Grand Canyon National Park reopened Friday to allow visitors in for day trips but not overnight.

Volume of testing isn’t the only concern. The Food and Drug Administration said late Thursday that it was investigating preliminary data that suggested a rapid COVID-19 test used by Trump and others every day can miss infections and falsely clear infected patients. FDA Commissioner Steve Hahn said Friday that his agency has provided new guidance to the White House after data suggested the 15-minute test may provide inaccuracies and false negatives.

The test, by Abbott Laboratories, is used daily at the White House to test Trump and key members of his staff, including the coronavirus task force.

The FDA warning came a day after researchers at New York University reported results suggesting Abbott’s test can miss up to half the infections caught by a rival test made by Cepheid. The research has not been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal and was based on about 100 patients.

In other coronavirus news on Friday, retail sales in the U.S. tumbled by a record 16.4% from March to April as business shutdowns caused by the pandemic kept shoppers away from stores. The Commerce Department’s report Friday on retail purchases showed a sector that has collapsed so quickly that sales over the past 12 months are down a crippling 21.6%.

The sharpest drops from March to April were at clothiers, electronics stores, furniture stores and restaurants. A long-standing migration of consumers toward online purchases is accelerating.

In Washington, Democrats began pushing a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill toward expected House passage. Democratic leaders were pressing ahead despite grumbling from party moderates leery of the measure’s massive price tag and liberals who wanted bolder steps, like money to cover workers’ salaries. The bill was sure to go nowhere in the GOP-led Senate, let alone reach President Donald Trump’s desk, where a promised veto awaited.

Worldwide, there have been more than 4.4 million coronavirus infections reported and 300,000 deaths, while nearly 1.6 million people have recovered, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

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Witte reported from Annapolis, Maryland. Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Associated Press data journalist Nicky Forster in New York and AP writer Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, also contributed to this report.