Disparities in Covid-19 Testing Are Highly Problematic

Long wait times and backlogs are crippling the U.S. response

Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog
3 min readAug 6, 2020

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Los Angeles, California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Despite the fact that the United States is in its sixth month of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic (and other countries began combatting the virus months before that), the country is still dealing with testing backlogs. In some cases, people are waiting two weeks or longer to get their results.

As Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, the incoming dean of the Brown University School of Public Health shared on Twitter on Tuesday, testing is down in 24 states and is lower now than it was two weeks ago. A decline in testing is okay for states that have high testing rates and a low test positivity rate. For example, New York currently has around a 1% positivity rate that puts its transmission rates at South Korea levels (if these numbers are accurate of course — testing delays make it harder to get a clear picture).

But a decline in tests in states that are hard hit by the virus is problematic. As Jha shares, in 24 states where testing is down, the test positivity rate is 12.6%. “This is abysmal,” he said.

“These states need to be doing a lot more than they are,” Jha added in his thread. “They are likely missing 70–80% of cases. They are not over-testing — they are under-testing. Yet their test numbers are declining Why? Long wait times and long turn around times means people are just giving up.”

Health experts are also questioning whether the country is doing enough to test the right people. “We could test lots of low risk people and have low positivity, but we’re failing if high risk groups can’t access testing,” Natalie Dean, PhD, assistant professor of Biostatistics at the University of Florida, recently shared on Twitter.

The long wait times are a barrier to getting tested, and data is showing that these wait times are not distributed evenly. A recent analysis of testing sites by ABC News, FiveThirtyEight, and ABC-owned television stations found that white neighborhoods have more access to testing sites and that testing sites in communities of color in many U.S. cities face higher demand. “The result of this disparity is clear: People of color, especially Blacks and Latinos, are more likely to experience longer wait…

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Alexandra Sifferlin
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that