IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Covid-19 testing lags as cases increase across the United States

Coronavirus testing rates have fallen in several states where cases are increasing, an NBC News analysis of Covid testing data has found.
Image: D.C. Region As Coronavirus Cases Spike At White House
People wearing protective masks wait in a line at a free coronavirus testing site in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6, 2020.Graeme Sloan / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Coronavirus testing rates have fallen in several states where cases are increasing, an NBC News analysis of testing data has found.

As of Monday afternoon, 8.2 million people have contracted Covid-19 in the U.S., according to NBC News numbers. More than 733,000 of those cases have been confirmed in the last two weeks.

The NBC News analysis of Covid Tracking Project data found six states where testing rates have fallen in the past two weeks, even as cases have risen.

Those states include:

  • Kentucky, where cases have risen 35 percent in the last two weeks, but testing rates have fallen 38 percent during the same period.
  • Nevada, where cases are up 30 percent, and testing rates are down 23 percent.
  • Iowa, where cases are up 18 percent but testing is down 30 percent.
  • Massachusetts, where cases are up 18 percent, but testing rates are down 11 percent.
  • Wisconsin, where cases are up eight percent, but testing is down four percent.
  • Arkansas, where cases are up seven percent but testing is down 24 percent.

As many as 30 states and territories have seen Covid-19 cases increase more than 25 percent in the last two weeks, according to an NBC News count of coronavirus cases in the country. But only 21 states saw increases in testing at or above that level during the same period.

While critics of wide scale testing, including President Donald Trump have asserted that surges in cases can be explained by increased testing, health experts say that a jump in confirmed cases is usually caused by more people getting sick.

And those experts, who have long urged that testing is a critical tool in the fight against the pandemic, say that the lack of aggressive and consistent testing has contributed to the virus’s spread.

“If we really wanted to get things under control, frequent testing of almost everybody would be one way to do it and we’re, of course, nowhere near that,” Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. “We’re doing infrequent testing of almost no one.”

There are several reasons why states aren’t conducting enough tests, experts say, including the diminished fear of the virus on the part of some people, who are increasingly getting tired of wearing masks, practicing social distancing and seeking Covid-19 tests.

“The initial level of fear is not at the level that it was,” said Melissa Nolan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina, which has resorted to offering students T-shirts and raffles as an incentive for testing. “Testing fatigue and mask-wearing fatigue is real.”

Without widespread testing, cities and states don’t have the ability to track who has the virus and who is at risk of getting it, experts say.

“There's still a dearth of testing,” Lipsitch said, pointing to colleges and sports as areas that are able to operate through the pandemic due to aggressive testing policies. “In places with higher resources, such as universities, you can actually figure out where people are getting exposed and infected.”