The Corner

Science & Tech

Conducting More Tests Means the Number of Cases Will Go Up. Full Stop.

A staff member of a medical center, wearing a protective face mask and gloves, checks the temperature of a patient at a coronavirus testing site in Paris, France. March 30, 2020. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

The New York Times:

The White House’s guidelines are nonbinding and ultimately leave states’ fates to governors. The criteria suggest that states should have a “downward trajectory” of either documented coronavirus cases or of the percentage of positive tests. Public health experts expressed criticism because “downward trajectory” was not defined and the metrics do not specify a threshold for case numbers or positive rates.

Still, most states that are reopening fail to adhere to even those recommendations: In more than half of states easing restrictions, case counts are trending upward, positive test results are rising, or both, raising concerns among public health experts.

The number of positive test results is rising, at least in part, because we’re testing more. If we want more tests, we’re going to find more positive cases. The number of tests with positive results might indicate a growing rate of infection . . . or it might just mean that the rate of infection is about the same as earlier, and we’re just measuring it more accurately now because more tests are being conducted.

A demand that a state dramatically increase the number of tests being done AND to see a consistent “downward trajectory” in the number of documented coronavirus cases is a demand that states not reopen for a very long time.

We know that testing positive does not necessarily mean you’re going to be at risk of serious health problems. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s most recent numbers are that “the overall cumulative hospitalization rate is 40.4 per 100,000, with the highest rates in people 65 years and older (131.6 per 100,000) and 50-64 years (63.7 per 100,000).” UPDATE: I originally interpreted this figure as 40 out of 100,000 who test positive; this is 40 out of every 100,000 people at large. Using the figures on worldometers, the United States has 15,827 of 978,454 active cases categorized as “serious, critical.” That comes out to 0.0161… which comes out to 1,614 per 100,000. That’s worse than 40 out of 100,000, but it still indicates that roughly 98.3 percent of people can get the virus and not be put in the “serious, critical” category. Some people who get the virus describe it as the worst flu they’ve ever had, which is pretty bad, but it does indicate they can function normally once they’ve beaten the virus and are not contagious.

Studies suggest a significant number of people with the virus have no symptoms at all, anywhere from 14 percent to 60 or 70 percent, and patients report a wide range of symptoms — many of which overlap with normal colds and the regular flu.

However, those who experience only minor symptoms or so will still be contagious for a period — which is why we don’t want them in the workplace or interacting with people any more than absolutely necessary.

This piece originally concluded, “This means that 99,959 or so of every 100,000 people testing positive can get through this by staying home, and getting bed rest and the usual treatment of viral infections.” Again, that CDC figure is for hospitalization rate for the entire population, not for positive cases.

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