Relatively few Americans say they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, but many more believe they may have been infected or say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed.
Only 2% of U.S. adults say they have been officially diagnosed with COVID-19 by a health care provider, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And 2% say they have taken a blood test that showed they have COVID-19 antibodies, an indication that they previously had the coronavirus. But many more Americans (14%) say they are “pretty sure” they had COVID-19, despite not getting an official diagnosis. And nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have the disease.
Although few Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves, many more say they know someone with a positive diagnosis. More than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed by a health care provider as having COVID-19. A smaller share of Americans (20%) say they know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died as a result of having the coronavirus.
Some groups are more likely than others to report personal experiences with COVID-19. For instance, black adults are the most likely to personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease. One-third of black Americans (34%) know someone who has been hospitalized or died, compared with 19% of Hispanics and 18% of white adults. Black Americans (32%) are also slightly more likely than Hispanic adults (26%) to know someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Public health studies have found black Americans are disproportionately dying or requiring hospitalization as a result of the coronavirus.
Areas in the northeastern United States have recorded some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases and fatalities, and this is reflected in the Center’s survey. About four-in-ten adults living in the Northeast (42%) say they personally know someone diagnosed with COVID-19, significantly more than among adults living in any other region. People living in the Northeast (31%) are also the most likely to know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease.
One aspect of personal risk for exposure to the coronavirus is whether someone is employed in a setting where they must have frequent contact with other people, such as at a grocery store, hospital or construction site. Given the potential for the spread of the coronavirus within households, risk to individuals is also higher if other members of the household are employed in similar settings. Among people who are currently employed full-time, 35% are working in a job with frequent public contact. Among those working part-time, almost half work (48%) in such a setting. For those living in a household with other adults, 35% report that at least one of those individuals is working in a job that requires frequent contact with other people.
Taken together, nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) have this type of exposure – either currently working in a job that requires contact with others, living in a household with others whose jobs require contact, or both.
Hispanics (at 48%) are more likely than either blacks (38%) or whites (35%) to have this type of personal or household exposure. An earlier Center analysis of government data found Hispanic adults were slightly more likely to work in service-sector jobs that require customer interaction, and that are at higher risk of layoffs as a result of the virus. In fact, the current Center survey found Hispanics were among the most likely to have experienced pay cuts or job losses due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Interpersonal exposure in the workplace is also more widespread among younger adults. And there is a 10 percentage point difference between upper- and lower-income Americans in exposure, with lower-income adults more likely to work in situations where they have to interact with the public, or to live with people who do.
Health experts warn that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to people who have underlying medical conditions. In the survey, one-third of adults say they have such a condition. Among this group, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say that the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to their personal health. Among those who do not report having an underlying medical condition, just 28% see the outbreak as a major threat to their health. Americans who have an underlying health condition are also more likely than those who do not to say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have COVID-19 (47% vs. 33% of those without a health condition).
Self-reports of an underlying health condition vary greatly by age. Among those ages 18 to 29, just 16% say they have a condition; this rises steadily with age to 56% among those 65 and older. Whites are a little more likely than blacks and Hispanics to report having a health condition, but both blacks (at 54%) and Hispanics (52%) are far more likely than whites (32%) to say that the coronavirus outbreak is “a major threat” to their health.
Seconds Count Survey Highlights New research shows fear of COVID-19 is stopping people from seeking care during medical emergencies, like heart attacks or strokes.
As States start to re-open, more than one-third of Americans (36 percent) consider going to the hospital to be one of the riskiest behaviors to take part in compared to going to a hair salon (27 percent) or going to the beach (16 percent)
61 percent of respondents think they are either somewhat likely or very likely to acquire COVID-19 in a hospital
Half of respondents are more afraid of contracting COVID-19 than experiencing a heart attack or stroke
Nearly 60 percent of respondents are more afraid of a family member or loved one contracting COVID-19 than experiencing a heart attack or stroke
When asked which are you more afraid of, contracting COVID-19, experiencing a heart attack or experiencing a stroke – twice as many people over the age of 60 are more afraid of contracting COVID-19 (52 percent) than they are of experiencing a heart attack (23 percent) or stroke (25 percent)
Ascension reported a total loss of $2.7 billion in the first three months of 2020, compared to income of $1.2 billion during the same time last year, according to new financial statements from the nonprofit giant.
The Catholic system, one of the largest hospital operators in the country, saw operating revenue decrease 2.5% year over year in the period ending March 31 to $6.1 billion. That came as expenses like salaries and supplies ticked up by more than 3% to $6.4 billion.
Ascension also reported losses from investments of $2.48 billion, compared to return from investments of $1.1 billion from the same time last year. Nonprofit operators are reporting massive investment hits as the stock market slid in the beginning of the year following widespread business closures and shelter-in-place orders stifling the economy.
Nonprofit hospitals are posting huge losses for the outset of 2020 as analysts predict an even grimmer second quarter to come. However, though losses in the first three months of the year dragged St. Louis-based Ascension into the red, the provider behemoth is still in a relatively good position to weather the pandemic, with current assets of $38.3 billion and 231 days of cash on hand.
Though patient volume was up prior to the pandemic, revenue from providing medical care flagged in the three-month period, as inpatient and ambulatory care slowed as the coronavirus surfaced in the U.S. In mid-March, Ascension deferred all non-essential procedures as stay-at-home orders kept potential patients in the home, impacting the system’s volumes.
Total net patient service revenue was $5.7 billion, down 3% year over year. Net patient service revenues had the sharpest drop off in March, decreasing more than 15% in that month alone.
“COVID-19 has been encountered across all Ascension markets, to varying degrees, and has had an adverse effect,” Ascension management wrote in comments on the results.
The system, which operates more than 2,600 sites of care, including 150 hospitals across 20 states and the District of Columbia, has received federal help to make up for lower-than-expected revenue. Ascension said in the filing it has received Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding before March 31. Though a spokesperson declined to tell Healthcare Dive a specific figure, Ascension has received at least $211 million from HHS, according to a New York Times review of the grants finding large hospitals with deep pockets are receiving the lion’s share of congressional funds.
Smaller hospitals that serve more vulnerable populations were deeply critical of HHS’ initial method to distribute the CARES funds, which put high margin hospitals at an advantage. The department did not take into account hospitals’ existing financial resources in distributing the pot.
Nine-year-old Ascension also received just under $2 billion in accelerated loans from the Medicare program.
Normal increases in operations compounded the negative effect of the pandemic, Ascension said. The system was funneling money into expanding service lines and sites of care and standardizing revenue cycle services prior to the COVID-19 crisis, which sharply increased expenses.
Supplies expenses particularly jumped in March by almost 7%, as the system hustled to procure needed equipment at unexpected rates to prepare for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients.
“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”
COVID-19 has unleashed a dual threat to health equity in the United States: a pandemic that has sickened millions and killed tens of thousands and counting, and an economic downturn that has resulted in tens of millions of people losing jobs—the highest numbers since the Great Depression. The COVID pandemic underscores that:
Our health is inextricably linked to that of our neighbors, family members, child- and adult-care providers, co-workers, school teachers, delivery service people, grocery store clerks, factory workers, and first responders, among others;
Our current health care, public health, and economic systems do not adequately or equitably protect our well-being as a nation; and
Every community is experiencing harm, though certain groups are suffering disproportionately, including people of color, workers with low incomes, and people living in places that were already struggling financially before the economic downturn.
For communities and their residents to recover fully and fairly, state and local leaders should consider the following health equity principles in designing and implementing their responses. These principles are not a detailed public health guide for responding to the pandemic or reopening the economy, but rather a compass that continually points leaders toward an equitable and lasting recovery.
Pandemics and economic recessions exacerbate disparities that ultimately hurt us all. Therefore, state and local leaders cannot design equitable response and recovery strategies without monitoring COVID’s impacts among socially and economically marginalized groups.¹ Data disaggregation should follow best practices and extend not only to public health data on COVID cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, but also to: measures of access to testing, treatment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and safe places to isolate when sick; receipt of social and economic supports; and the downstream consequences of COVID on well-being, ranging from housing instability to food insecurity.
Geographic identifiers would allow leaders and the public to understand the interplay between place and social factors, as counties with large black populations account for more than half of all COVID deaths, and rural communities and post-industrial cities generally fare worse in economic downturns. Legal mandates for data disaggregation are proliferating, but 11 states are still not reporting COVID deaths by race; 16 are not reporting by gender; and 26 are not reporting based on congregate living status (e.g., nursing homes, jails). Only three are reporting testing data by race and ethnicity.
While states and cities can do more, the federal government should also support data disaggregation through funding and national standards.
Our communities are stronger, more stable, and more prosperous when every person, including the most disadvantaged residents, is healthy and financially secure. Throughout the response and recovery, state and local leaders should ask: Are we making sure that people facing the greatest risks have access to PPE, testing and treatment, stable housing, and a way to support their families? And, are we creating ways for residents—particularly those hardest hit—to meaningfully participate in and shape the government’s recovery strategy?
Accordingly, policymakers should create space for leaders from these communities to be at decision-making tables and should regularly consult with community-based organizations that can identify barriers to accessing health and social services, lift up grassroots solutions, and disseminate public health guidance in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. For example, they could recommend trusted, accessible locations for new testing sites and advise on how to diversify the pool of contact tracers, who will be crucial to tamping down the spread of infection in reopened communities. They could also collaborate with government leaders to ensure that all people who are infected with coronavirus (or exposed to someone infected) have a safe, secure, and acceptable place to isolate or quarantine for 14 days. Key partners could include community health centers, small business associations, community organizing groups, and workers’ rights organizations, among others. Ultimately, state and local leaders should measure the success of their response based not only on total death counts and aggregate economic impacts but also on the health and social outcomes of the most marginalized.
Race or ethnicity should not determine anyone’s opportunity for good health or social well-being, but, as COVID has shown, we are far from this goal. People of color are more likely to be front-line workers, to live in dense or overcrowded housing, to lack health insurance, and to experience chronic diseases linked to unhealthy environments and structural racism. Therefore, state and local leaders should empower dedicated teams to address COVID-related racial disparities, as several leaders, Republican and Democrat, have already done.
To be effective, these entities should: include leaders of color from community, corporate, academic, and philanthropic sectors; be integrated as key members of the broader public health and economic recovery efforts; and be accountable to the public. These teams should foster collaboration between state, local, and tribal governments to assist Native communities; anticipate and mitigate negative consequences of current response strategies, such as bias in enforcement of public health guidelines; address racial discrimination within the health care system; and ensure access to tailored mental health services for people of color and immigrants who are experiencing added trauma, stigma, and fear. Ultimately, resourcesmatter. State and local leaders must ensure that critical health and social supports are distributed fairly, proportionate to need, and free of undue restrictions to meet the needs of all groups, including black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities.
The Congressional response to COVID has been historic in its scope and speed, but significant gaps remain. Additional federal resources are needed for a broad range of health and social services, along with fiscal relief for states and communities facing historically large budget deficits due to COVID. Despite these challenges, state and local leaders must still find ways to take targeted policy actions. The following questions can help guide their response.
Who is left out?Inclusion of all populations will strengthen the public health response and lessen the pandemic’s economic fallout for all of society, but federal actions to date have not included all who have been severely harmed by the pandemic. As a result, many states and communities have sought to fill gaps in eviction protections and paid sick and caregiving leave. Others are extending support to undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families through public-private partnerships, faith-based charities, and community-led mutual aid systems. Vital health care providers, including safety net hospitals and Indian Health Service facilities, have also been disadvantaged and need targeted support.
Will protections last long enough?Many programs, such as expanded Medicaid funding, are tied to the federal declaration of a public health emergency, which will likely end before the economic crisis does. Other policies, like enhanced unemployment insurance and mortgage relief, are set to expire on arbitrary dates. And still others, such as stimulus checks, were one-time payments. Instead, policy extensions should be tied to the extent of COVID infection in a state or community (or its anticipated spread) and/or to broader economic measures such as unemployment. This is particularly important as communities will likely experience re-openings and closings over the next six to 12 months as COVID reemerges.
Have programs that meet urgent needs been fully and fairly implemented?Allexisting federal resources should be used in a time of great need. For example, additional states should adopt provisions that would allow families with school-age children to receive added Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and more communities need innovative solutions to provide meals to young children who relied on schools or child care providers for breakfast and lunch. States should also revise eligibility, enrollment, and recertification processes that deter Medicaid use by children, pregnant women, and lawfully residing immigrants.
Health, public health, and social infrastructure are critical for recovery and for our survival of the next pandemic, severe weather event, or economic downturn. A comprehensive public health system is the first line of defense for rural, tribal, and urban communities. While a sizable federal reinvestment in public health is needed, states and communities must also reverse steady cuts to the public health workforce and laboratory and data systems.
These principles can guide our nation toward an equitable response and recovery and help sow the seeds of long-term, transformative change. States and cities have begun imagining and, in some cases, advancingtoward this vision, putting a down payment on a fair and just future in which health equity is a reality. Returning to the ways things were is not an option.
Some Workers Losing Jobs and Health Insurance Remain Ineligible for Subsidized Coverage.
People who have lost jobs due to COVID-19 and live in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing affordable health insurance coverage.
More than 70 percent of the 7.4 million workers with pre-pandemic employer-based insurance through industries now vulnerable to high rates of unemployment were found to be eligible for some assistance with health insurance (Medicaid or marketplace subsidies) if they lost their jobs. However, eligibility differs significantly between workers in states that have and have not expanded Medicaid.
Authors find that whether unemployment compensation is included in determining eligibility for Medicaid and Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace subsidies affects workers living in states that expanded Medicaid differently than those living in states that do not.
If the additional federal unemployment compensation was not used to determine eligibility for health insurance assistance, 78 percent of expansion state workers in the most vulnerable industries would be eligible for assistance compared to 59 percent of their counterparts in the 15 nonexpansion states.
Under current law, more than 70 percent of expansion and nonexpansion state workers with pre-pandemic employer-based insurance through industries now vulnerable to high rates of unemployment would be eligible for some assistance with health insurance if they lost their jobs.
The current limits on marketplace subsidies mean that fewer workers are likely to be eligible for financial assistance in getting or maintaining health insurance coverage. At the same time, additional funds could help them meet other pressing needs. This research suggests that eligibility for financial assistance above 400 percent of the federal poverty level under current rules would address this problem.
About the Urban Institute
The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.
President Trump said Friday the U.S. would halt its funding of the World Health Organization and pull out of the agency, accusing it of protecting China as the coronavirus pandemic took off. The move has alarmed health experts, who say the decision will undermine efforts to improve the health of people around the world.
In an address in the Rose Garden, Trump said the WHO had not made reforms that he said would have helped the global health agency stop the coronavirus from spreading around the world.
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said. “The world needs answers from China on the virus.”
It’s not immediately clear whether the president can fully withdraw U.S. funding for the WHO without an act of Congress, which typically controls all federal government spending. Democratic lawmakers have argued that doing so would be illegal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened last month that such a move would be “swiftly challenged.”
The United States has provided roughly 15% of the WHO’s total funding over its current two-year budget period.
The WHO has repeatedly said it was committed to a review of its response, but after the pandemic had ebbed. Last month, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said the “postmortem” on the pandemic should wait until the emergency was over.
As the Trump administration’s response to pandemic has come under greater scrutiny, with testing problems and a lack of coordination in deploying necessary supplies, Trump has sought to cast further blame on China and the WHO for failing to snuff out the spread when the virus was centered in China.
During his remarks, Trump alleged, without evidence, that China pressured WHO to mislead the world about the virus. Experts say that if the U.S. leaves the WHO, the influence of China will only grow.
“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said. “China’s coverup of the Wuhan virus allowed the disease to spread all over the world, instigating a global pandemic that has cost more than 100,000 American lives, and over a million lives worldwide.” (That last claim is not true; globally, there have been about 360,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)
When Trump earlier this month threatened to yank U.S. funding in a letter, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, would only say during a media briefing that the agency was reviewing it. But he and other officials stressed that the agency had a small budget — about $2.3 billion every year — relative to the impact the agency had and what it was expected to do.
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the U.S. funding provided the largest proportion of that program’s budget.
“So my concerns today are both for our program and … working on how we improve our funding base for WHO’s core budget,” Ryan said. “Replacing those life-saving funds for front-line health services to some of the most difficult places in the world — we’ll obviously have to work with other partners to ensure those funds can still flow. So this is going to have major implications for delivering essential health services to some of the most vulnerable people in the world and we trust that other donors will if necessary step in to fill that gap.”
But a Vox analysis suggests that most states haven’t made the preparations needed to contain future waves of the pandemic — putting themselves at risk for a rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths should they continue to reopen.
Experts told me states need three things to be ready to reopen.State leaders, from the governor to the legislature to health departments, need to ensure the SARS-CoV-2 virus is no longer spreading unabated. They need the testing capacity to track and isolate the sick and their contacts. And they need the hospital capacity to handle a potential surge in Covid-19 cases.
More specifically, states should meet at least five basic criteria. They should see a two-week drop in coronavirus cases, indicating that the virus is actually abating. They should have fewer than four daily new cases per 100,000 people per day — to show that cases aren’t just dropping, but also below dangerous levels. They need at least 150 new tests per 100,000 people per day, letting them quickly track and contain outbreaks. They need an overall positive rate for tests below 5 percent — another critical indicator for testing capacity. And states should have more than 40 percent of their ICU beds free to actually treat an influx of people stricken with Covid-19 should it be necessary.
These metrics line up with experts’ recommendations, as well as the various policy plans put out by both independent groups and government officials to deal with the coronavirus.
But with these metrics, states can gauge if they have repressed the coronavirus while building the capacity to contain future outbreaks should they come. In other words, the benchmarks show how ready states are for the next phase of the fight.
So far, most states are not there. As of May 27, just three states — Alaska, Kentucky, and New York — met four or five of the goals, which demonstrates strong progress. Thirty states hit two or three of the benchmarks. The other 17, along with Washington, DC, achieved zero or one.
Even the states that have made the most progress aren’t necessarily ready to safely reopen. There’s a big difference between Alaska — which has not suffered from a high number of coronavirus cases — and New York, and no expert would say that all of New York is ready to get back to normal.
Nor do the metrics cover everything that states should do before they can reopen. They don’t show, for example, if states have the capacity to do contact tracing, in which people who came into contact with someone who’s sick with Covid-19 are tracked down by “disease detectives” and quarantined. Contact tracing is key to containing an epidemic, but states don’t track how many contact tracers they’ve hired in a standardized, readily available way.
They also don’t have ready data for health care workers’ access to personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves — a critical measure of the health care system’s readiness that is difficult to track.
But the map gives an idea of how much progress states have made toward containing the coronavirus and keeping it contained.
States will have to follow these kinds of metrics as they reopen. If the numbers — especially coronavirus cases — go in the wrong direction again, experts said governments should be ready to bring back restrictions. If states move too quickly to reopen or respond too slowly to a turn for the worse, they could see a renewed surge in Covid-19 cases.
“Planning for reclosing is part of planning for reopening,” Mark McClellan, a health policy expert at Duke, told me. “There will be outbreaks, and there will be needs for pauses and going back — hopefully not too much if we do this carefully.”
So this will be a work in progress, at least until we get a Covid-19 vaccine or the pandemic otherwise ends, whether by natural or human means. But the metrics can at least help give states an idea of how far along they are in finally starting to open back up.
Goal 1: A sustained two-week drop in coronavirus cases
What’s the goal? A 10 percent drop in daily new coronavirus cases compared to two weeks ago and a 5 percent drop in cases compared to one week ago, based on data from the New York Times.
Which states meet the goal? Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas — 17 states in all. Washington, DC, did as well.
Why is this important? Guidance from the White House and several independent groups emphasize that states need to see coronavirus cases drop consistently over two weeks before they can say they’re ready to begin reopening. After all, nothing shows you’re out of an outbreak like a sustained reduction in infections.
“The first and foremost [metric] is you want to have a continued decrease in cases,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, told me. “It’s a huge piece.”
A simple reduction in cases compared to two weeks prior isn’t enough; it has to be a significant drop, and it has to be sustained over the two weeks. So for Vox’s map, states need at least a 10 percent drop in daily new cases compared to two weeks prior and at least a 5 percent drop compared to one week prior.
Reported cases can be a reflection of testing capacity: More testing will pick up more cases, and less testing will pick up fewer. So it’s important that the decrease occur while testing is either growing or already sufficient. And since states have recently boosted their testing abilities, increases in Covid-19 cases can also reflect improvements in testing.
Even after meeting this benchmark, continued caution is warranted. If a state meets the goal of a reduction in cases compared to one and two weeks ago but cases seemed to go up in recent days, then perhaps it’s not time to reopen just yet. “You have to use common sense,” Cyrus Shahpar, a director at the public health policy group Resolve to Save Lives, told me.
For states with small outbreaks, this goal is infeasible. Montana has seen around one to two new Covid-19 cases a day for several weeks. Getting that down to zero would be nice, but the current level of daily new cases isn’t a big threat to the whole state. That’s one reason Vox’s map lets states meet four or five of the five goals — in case they miss one goal that doesn’t make sense for them but hit others.
Still, the two-week reduction in cases is the most cited by experts and proposals to ease social distancing.
Goal 2: A low number of daily new Covid-19 cases
What’s the goal? Fewer than four daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people per day, based on data from the New York Times and Census Bureau.
Which states meet the goal? Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming — 17 states.
Why is this important? One of the best ways to know you’re getting away from a disease outbreak is to no longer see a high number of daily new infections. While there’s no universally accepted number, experts said that four daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people is a decent ceiling.
“If I go from one to two to three [coronavirus cases a day], it’s different than going from 1,000 to 2,000 to 3,000, even though the percent difference is the same,” Shahpar said. “That’s why you have to take into account the overall level, too.”
This number can balance out the shortcomings in other metrics on this list. For example, New York — which has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country — has seen its reported daily new coronavirus cases drop for weeks, meeting the goal of a sustained drop in cases. But since that’s coming down from a huge high, even a month of sustained decreases may not be enough. New York has to make sure it falls below a threshold of new cases, too.
At the same time, if your state is now below four daily new cases per 100,000 but it’s seen a recent uptick in cases, that’s a reason for caution. New York, after all, saw just a handful of confirmed coronavirus cases before an exponential explosion of the disease took the state to thousands of new cases a day.
But if your state is below the threshold, it’s in a pretty solid place relative to most other states.
Which states meet the goal? Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, and Rhode Island — for a total of 12 states.
Why is this important? Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have argued that the US needs the capacity for about 500,000 Covid-19 tests a day. Controlling for population, that adds up to about 150 new tests per 100,000 people per day.
Testing is crucial to getting the coronavirus outbreak under control. When paired withcontact tracing, testing lets officials track the scale of the outbreak, isolate the sick, quarantine those the sick came into contact with, and deploy community-wide efforts as necessary. Testing and tracing are how other countries, like South Korea and Germany, have managed to control their outbreaks and started to reopen their economies.
The idea, experts said, is to have enough surveillance to detect embers before they turn into full wildfires.
“States should be shoring up their testing capacity not just for what it looks like right now while everyone’s in their homes, but as people start to move more,” Jen Kates, the director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. “As people start doing more movement, you’ll have to test more, because people are going to come into contact with each other more.”
This goal is supposed to be for diagnostic tests, not antibody tests. Diagnostic tests gauge whether a person has the virus in their system and is, therefore, sick right at the moment of the test. Antibody tests check if someone ever developed antibodies to the virus to see if they had ever been sick in the past. Since diagnostic tests give a more recent gauge of the level of infection, they’re seen as much more reliable for evaluating the current state of the Covid-19 outbreak in a state.
In particular, Georgia’s data suggested it met the goal of 150 daily tests per 100,000 people, but the state only started separating antibody tests from its total after the data was collected. Without the antibody tests, Georgia very likely wouldn’t meet the goal.
Some states’ numbers, like Missouri’s, also may appear significantly worse than they should due to recent efforts to decouple diagnostic testing data from antibody testing data, which can temporarily warp the overall test count.
“The virus isn’t going to care whether they were manipulating the numbers or not in order to look more favorable; it’s going to continue to spread,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “It’s better to really understand what’s going on and report that accurately.”
For states honestly reporting these numbers, though, they’re a critical measure of their ability to detect, control, and contain coronavirus outbreaks.
Goal 4: A low test-positive rate
What’s the goal? Below 5 percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive over the past week, based on data from the Covid Tracking Project.
Which states meet the goal? Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming — for a total of 23 states.
Why is this important? The positive or positivity rate, which tracks how many tests come back positive for Covid-19, is another way to measure testing capacity.
Generally, a higher positive rate suggests there’s not enough testing happening. An area with adequate testing should be testing lots and lots of people, many of whom don’t have the disease or don’t show severe symptoms. The positive testing rate in South Korea, for example, is below 2 percent. High positive rates indicate only people with obvious symptoms are getting tested, so there’s not quite enough testing to match the scope of an outbreak.
The positive rate data is subject to the same limitations as the overall testing data from the Covid Tracking Project. So if a state includes antibody tests in its test count, it could skew the positive rate to look better than it is. States only risk hurting themselves if they do this.
Which states meet the goal? Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — for a total of 30 states.
Why is this important? If a pandemic hits, the health care system needs to be ready to treat the most severe cases and potentially save lives. That’s the key goal of “flattening the curve” and “raising the line,” in which social distancing helps reduce the spread of the disease so the health care system can maintain and grow its capacity to treat an influx of Covid-19 patients.
“There’s this idea that in six weeks we can open more things,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “But the virus is still there. It’s all about making sure that the case count isn’t too immense for our hospital system to deal with.”
To gauge this, experts recommended looking at ICU capacity, with states aiming to have less than 60 percent occupancy in their ICUs.
A big limitation in the metric: It’s based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of only some hospitals in each state. So it might not be fully representative of hospital capacity throughout an entire state. But it’s the best current data available, and it suggests that the majority of states meet that standard.
That’s extremely good news. It shows that America really has flattened the curve, at least for now. But it’s done that so far through extreme social distancing. If the next step is to keep the curve flattened while easing restrictions, that will require meeting the other metrics on this list.
Hitting the benchmarks is the beginning, not the end
Vox’s map is just one way of tracking success against the coronavirus. Other groups have come up with their own measures, including Covid Act Now, Covid Exit Strategy, and Test and Trace. Vox’s model uses more up-to-date data than some of these other examples, while focusing not just on the state of the pandemic but states’ readiness to contain Covid-19 outbreaks in the future.
Very few states hit all the marks recommended by experts. But even those that do shouldn’t consider the pandemic over. They should continue to improve — for example, getting the positive rate below even 1 percent, as in New Zealand — and look at even more granular metrics, such as at the city or county level.
Meeting the benchmarks, however, indicates a state is better equipped to contain future coronavirus outbreaks as it eases previous restrictions.
Experts emphasized that states have to keep hitting all these goals week after week and day after day — Covid-19 cases must remain low, testing ability needs to stay high, and hospital capacity should be good enough for an influx of patients — until the pandemic is truly over, whether thanks to a vaccine or other means. Otherwise, a future wave of coronavirus cases, as seen in past pandemics, could kill many more people.
“You need to have all the metrics met,” Popescu said. “This needs to be a very incremental, slow process to ensure success.”
And if the numbers do start trending in the wrong direction, states should be ready to shut down at least some parts of the economy again. Maybe not as much as before, as we learn which places are truly at risk of increasing spread. But experts caution that future shutdowns will likely be necessary to some extent.
“I do worry we’re going to see surges of cases and hot spots,” Watson said. “We do need to keep pushing on building those capacities. … Otherwise, we’re just rolling the dice on the spread of the virus. It’s better if we have more control of the spread.”
That’s another reason these metrics, along with broader coronavirus surveillance, are so important: They not only help show how far along states are in dealing with their current Covid-19 outbreaks, but will help track progress to stop and prevent future crises as well.