North Carolina's Coronavirus Testing Rate Is One Of The Worst In Nation

May 6, 2020

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have said testing is the key to stopping the spread.

But North Carolina now ranks 45th out of 50 states when it comes to testing, according to a WFAE analysis of data from the COVID-19 tracking project.

South Carolina is even worse. It’s second to last.

Tennessee is offering free testing out of mobile sites to anyone even if they don’t have symptoms.

“You know, if they feel like they want to get tested they can,” said the state’s epidemiologist John Dunn. “The governor’s office has been very clear about that. We want to make testing widely available.”

Last weekend, the state had 16 drive-thru test sites.

“We started with a pretty strict set of symptoms back at the beginning of COVID in Tennessee, and we’ve slowly widened out the symptoms as we’ve learned more about COVID. And just to provide access to our population,” he said.

Tennessee has conducted 211,000 tests -- more than 3% of the state’s population.

North Carolina has administered nearly 152,000 tests - about 1.4% of its population. 

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday the state would enter Phase 1 of reopening Friday. That allows most retailers to open, although there are restrictions on how many people can be in stores.

North Carolina needed better testing before reopening, said Mark Lurie, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University. 

“In North Carolina, you’ve achieved 1.3% of the entire population,” he said. “For a safe and effective reopening, you’d want to have many more times that proportion of the population and many people testing multiple times over the course of a couple of weeks.”

He said better testing lets health departments find infected people faster – even asymptomatic ones. They can be isolated quickly, before spreading the virus.

When North Carolina extended its stay-at-home order on April 23, Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the state wanted to perform 5,000-7,000 tests a day. 

The state has averaged 4,400 day per day since the stay-at-home order was extended, but has hit at least 5,000 tests in five of the last seven days.

The state had other metrics: 

• COVID-19 hospitalizations decrease or level. That also hasn’t happened. There were 486 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on April 23, when the stay-at-home order was extended. There were 534 people with COVID-19 hospitalized Tuesday. Cohen said she believes that’s a leveling and the state has enough hospital beds.

• The number of new infections decreases each day. The state has acknowledged that hasn’t happened.

• Another metric was the percentage of positive tests declining, which has happened.

Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris, speaking during a roundtable of business leaders on Monday, said the state needs to move faster on testing.

“There continues to be slow movement on this, unfortunately, in terms of providing guidance that would be helpful,” she said. 

Harris said the state has asked each county to produce a testing plan, which she says will take too long to be vetted.

“And I basically told them the horse will already be out of the barn by then,” Harris said. “We’re working on a plan right now. And we need their input if they are going to provide it right now.” 

WFAE asked North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services why it has fallen behind other states. 

The state did not respond directly, but said, “Our testing volume has increased ... and is trending up.” 

The state has also said that it hasn't received all negative test results from health care providers, so its official number of tests is low.

States hit hard by the coronavirus -- like New York and New Jersey -- ramped up testing, trying to contain outbreaks. 

But states that haven’t been overwhelmed are also testing far more than North Carolina on a per-capita basis.

Rhode Island leads the nation in testing. It’s tested 7% of the state’s population.

Jim McDonald with the Rhode Island Board of Health says the state looked to South Korea, which used testing to nearly defeat the virus. He said the National Guard in Rhode Island set up mobile testing, and other companies also helped.

“CVS came in with their testing, and they were doing 1,000 a day, and that helped that’s been running for three weeks now,” he said. “Today, we just started doing screening at supermarkets."

Because check-out clerks have so much contact with people, Rhode Island will test them – even if they are healthy.

In Tennessee, the state is paying for testing. The state’s epidemiologist says expanding testing has made Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s plans to reopen late last month more feasible.

“It is a substantial cost,” Dunn said. “But it’s been a real commitment from high up in our administration to make the testing available and to have testing data available to help inform decision making.”

In North Carolina, DHHS says it’s working with Walmart and Walgreens on drive-thru testing and is hoping to add CVS and Harris Teeter as well. 

Clarification
This story has been updated to reflect that the state has performed at least 5,000 tests a day for five of the last seven days.

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