Updated at 3:10 p.m. ET on April 19, 2020.
Even as Donald Trump has delineated his plan to relax social distancing, the United States remains very much in the dark about who has the coronavirus and who does not. We have a shortage of COVID-19 tests, and we simultaneously have the highest number of confirmed cases in the world. Consequently, not every American who wants a test can get one. Not every health-care worker can get one. Not even every patient entering a hospital can get one. Because of the shortages, we are rationing tests, and medical facilities and public-health officials are prioritizing the sickest patients for them.
If the goal is to restart the American economy, the United States isn’t performing anywhere near enough tests. Worse still, we are testing the wrong people. To safely reopen closed businesses and revive American social life, we need to perform many more tests—and focus them on the people most likely to spread COVID-19, not sick patients.
COVID-19 testing has been an unmitigated failure in this country. This month, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a data initiative launched by The Atlantic in March, the number of tests performed in the United States has plateaued at about 130,000 to 160,000 a day. Rather than growing rapidly—as all experts think is absolutely necessary—the daily number of tests administered in some jurisdictions has even decreased. In New York, for instance, 10,241 tests were performed on April 6, but supply limits forced a huge drop a few days later to 25 total tests. Quest Diagnostics, one of the two biggest firms that run tests, just furloughed 9 percent of its workforce. In addition, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, said during a briefing last week that, of 1 million test kits distributed for use in Abbott Laboratories' high-throughput testing machines, only 88,000 had been used; news reports suggest that shortages of supplies and personnel were to blame.* Testing bottlenecks such as these are major obstacles to getting Americans out of their homes and back on the job.