COVID tracker: Testing numbers are slipping, which threatens all the other numbers

  • The number of people dying each day from COVID-19 is finally declining, as shown by the dotted line. The number of people dying in each two-week period has fallen from 86 in mid-May to around 35 last week. CourtesyDHHS

Monitor staff
Published: 7/12/2020 7:20:59 PM

The Concord Monitor is keeping track of four measurements as indicators of how the COVID-19 pandemic is progressing. This is our sixth weekly update and the news continues to be good, although questions remain about testing numbers.

The number of tests might be the most important goal because many other numbers depend on it. If not enough people are being tested regularly then data about the number of active cases and the percentage of people who have the disease becomes unreliable.

Because of that, I have reordered the 4 goals bringing testing numbers to the forefront.

Goal 1

At least 150 PCR tests, which spot current COVID-19 cases, performed per 100,000 people per day.

Have we met this goal? No.

New Hampshire has 1.35 million people, so performing 150 PCR tests per 100,000 people means 2,000 tests a day. The daily average hit that number in late June but since then has slipped. At the end of last week it was 1,884.

The decline is a surprise because the state has instituted “surveillance” testing at a number of long-term care facilities, with regular tests of randomly chosen people to spot outbreaks before they happen. I thought it would boost the overall number of tests – about 300 tests a day are being performed by Mako Labs, the company that contracted to test samples from nursing homes – but apparently testing elsewhere has slipped.

That may be a reflection of some high-profile testing locations closing down but I suspect it’s more a reflection of COVID fatigue. Rightly or wrongly people are less worried than they were in May so they’re less likely to take the time and the nasal irritation of getting tested.

The decline in tests outside of surveillance programs is reflected in the fact that the number of people tested on the average day is just 1,230. By their very nature, surveillance testing gives tests repeatedly to the same people. That’s important when anticipating outbreaks in a nursing home but it doesn’t do much for the bigger picture of measuring the spread of the disease throughout the state.

Whatever the reasons for the testing number slip, it’s a concern for New Hampshire’s ability to stay on top of the virus. We’re one of the best states in the country when it comes to the amount of COVID-19 right now but if we don’t measure what’s out there we won’t know whether, and how, we need to make changes.

Goal 2

A two-week drop in cases as measured by the 14-day running average, which would indicate that less of the virus is circulating.

Have we met this goal? Yes, but there are concerns

The average number of new cases over the previous two weeks had fallen consistently since June 4, but over the past week it seems to have stabilized at about 30 new cases each day.

Goal 3

Fewer than four new cases per 100,000 people each day, which would show that the disease is below dangerous levels.

Have we met this goal? Yes!

New Hampshire has 1.36 million people, so four new cases per 100,000 people is a ceiling of 54 new cases a day. The two-week average has been lower than that for almost a month: Most recently it was just 31 cases per day.

Goal 4

A positive rate of PCR tests below 5%, indicating that the virus is not spreading rapidly in the general population.

Have we met this goal? Yes.

The positive rate has been around 3% as measured by the Department of Health and Human Services over a three-day average for two months.

Another metric that continues to do well is hospitalization. On average, barely one new hospitalization happens every day.

Even the death rate may finally be slowing. The two-week average of daily deaths fell last week to 33, its lowest number in months. That is still a tragedy, of course, but it may indicate that we’re seeing benefits from an emphasis on long-term care facilities, where about 80% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred.

To see a discussion of how I decided on these four measurements, check this earlier column.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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