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On Friday, California also stopped reporting how many tests it has conducted, switching to releasing only the number of positive cases. The California Department of Public Health told us that the state had tested 778 people as of Saturday, and that the state has 114 positive cases. It now has 15 labs doing tests across the state.
North Carolina, which has two positive cases, and Indiana, which has two, have also never said how many overall tests they have conducted.
LabCorp and Quest, two companies that run routine medical tests for doctors’ offices, have both announced that they can now test samples for COVID-19. The two companies can test a combined 2,500 patients a day, according to a tally assembled by Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, and published by the American Enterprise Institute.
Altogether, the country can test a maximum of 7,840 people a day, according to Gottlieb’s preliminary tally. His count is another example of the kinds of data tabulation that a federal agency might usually take responsibility for.
The testing situation is so bad that Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard, says that health officials and journalists should stop reporting the number of positive cases in the United States as “new cases.” Instead, he wrote by email, “they should refer to them as ‘newly discovered cases,’ in order to remove the impression that the number of cases reported has any bearing on the actual number.”
The ponderous rollout of tests—and the stringent criteria that the CDC has imposed on them—has hamstrung doctors and injected anxiety into the lives of ordinary Americans. Are their symptoms pneumonia, the flu, or something worse?
“I have no clue if we could have already or could be now spreading this to others,” a 38-year-old woman who lives near Austin, Texas, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, told us.
After returning from Western Europe in late January, the woman and her husband came down with a mysterious illness, which sent them in and out of week-long fevers. She and her husband would wake up coughing in the middle of the night, their ribs aching so badly that they needed to vomit. She has tested negative for the flu, twice, and also tested negative for strep. She has been diagnosed with pneumonia.
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On her trip, she had frequently been in large, international crowds, where she could easily have been exposed to the coronavirus. But despite having all the symptoms, she has not been tested for it. When she called Austin’s public-health department to ask for guidance, she was told that unless she was hospitalized or had traveled to China, she could not be tested for COVID-19.
“The woman who I talked to said, ‘There aren’t any cases here [in Travis County],’” she told us. “And I said, ‘There hasn’t been any testing, so how do you know?’”