- While cases in the US are rising again, the country has finally scaled up its COVID-19 testing efforts after months of delays and missteps.
- One way to measure those efforts is by calculating the percent of tests that come back positive, which the World Health Organization has said should be below 5% for two weeks before countries reopen.
- Last week, the US dipped below that threshold after hovering at around 20% for much of March and April.
- This chart shows how the US currently stacks up to 12 other countries in terms of positivity rates.
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The US surpassed 2 million total coronavirus cases this week, and even as most of the country has reopened in some capacity, 21 states are already seeing a resurgence — or in some instances, a continuing initial surge — of infections.
Cases in Texas, Utah, and Arizona started climbing on May 27 after an action-packed Memorial Day weekend, and protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have brought tens of thousands of people together could also fuel a further spread of the virus.
But at least one aspect of the country’s response has changed: testing efforts.
In March and April, as the US became the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, years of budget cuts and missteps by the Trump administration along with multiple errors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left the US woefully behind other countries in its ability to test widely for the virus.
Guidelines from the World Health Organization say countries should aim to test one out of every 1,000 residents each week and should see less than 5% of those tests come back positive for at least two consecutive weeks before they begin to relax social distancing and other public health measures.
After months of delays, the US has finally reached WHO thresholds for testing capacity and positivity rates, according to Business Insider’s analysis of data from Our World In Data.
Here’s how the current positivity rate in the US compares to 12 other countries.
The US lagged behind many countries for months, but recently met WHO’s testing guidelines.
As of March 8, the US had conducted just 5 total tests per million people — or 0.005 per 1,000 people. By contrast, South Korea, which has been able to contain the spread of the virus within its borders much more effectively, had processed 3,700 tests per million people — or 3.7 per 1,000 people.
In the week leading up to that date, nearly 30% of tests in the US came back positive, according to The COVID Tracking Project, an indication that it was failing to test enough people to have a good sense of the virus’ spread.
A month later, tests had ramped up considerably — more than 1.4 million as of April 4 compared to just 135,000 on March 20 — but experts said its efforts were still lagging behind.
Four and a half months after it recorded its first case, the US is finally testing at levels recommended by the WHO. From June 1 to June 8, it conducted 3.2 million tests, just shy of 10 per 1,000 people, and around 4.8% came back positive.
However, the US has yet to see its positivity rate dip below 5% for 2 consecutive weeks, and experts are increasingly warning of new waves of cases in states that open prematurely. Some, like Oregon, have already paused reopening plans amid rising cases.