Updated at 6:13 p.m. ET on May 14, 2020.
The United States’ ability to test for the novel coronavirus finally seems to be improving. As recently as late April, the country rarely reported more than 150,000 new test results each day. The U.S. now routinely claims to conduct more than 300,000 tests a day, according to state-level data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.
But these rosy numbers may conceal a problem: A lack of federal guidelines has created huge variation in how states are reporting their COVID-19 data and in what kind of data they provide to the public.
These gaps can be used for political advantage. In at least one state, Virginia, senior officials are blending the results of two different types of coronavirus test in order to report a more favorable result to the public. This harms the integrity of the data they use to make decisions, reassure residents, and justify reopening their economy.
Other differences make it hard to track the pandemic. In at least three other states, officials have lumped together probable and confirmed COVID-19 deaths; most don’t specify how they’re counting deaths. While most states report the number of people who have been tested for the coronavirus, six states say they track the number of samples that have been tested—and California and New Jersey switched methods in the past few weeks. Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New York do not report the racial or ethnic breakdown of coronavirus cases.* Even more states fail to report the racial breakdown of deaths. It is still impossible to know, for example, how many black people have died of COVID-19, though the data that do exist suggest that black people are dying at much higher levels than other groups.