Coronavirus Testing Numbers Demonstrate How Much Catching Up The US Has To Do

A nasal swab is used to confirm suspected cases of COVID19. Horth Rasur/Shutterstock

The US currently has the highest death rate for coronavirus, with 3.6 percent of confirmed cases ending in fatalities as of March 9. Coronavirus testing numbers, however, indicate that this number is probably disproportionately high, as a lack of testing throughout the country means mild cases are not being diagnosed. Both the US and South Korea announced their first confirmed case of coronavirus on the same day, and yet South Korea has, as of last weekend, tested 189,000 people, while the US had only tested 1,707 by March 5. Testing numbers throughout the world demonstrate how far behind the US is in responding to the crisis, and how likely it is that there are currently far more cases in the population than have been diagnosed.

Test kit shortages are a concern worldwide, and with the early and mild symptoms of coronavirus bearing a resemblance to a host of respiratory illnesses, it’s difficult to preserve those available for genuine cases. This is most evident in the US where, out of all the affected countries, the fewest number of COVID-19 tests per capita have been carried out.

In a statement to Business Insider, William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, said: "The infectious-disease community and the public-health community desire to do much more testing than is currently feasible… We are trotting along while they're racing along."

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Frugal testing in the US as a result of limited facilities has meant the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has only recommended testing in cases where the affected patient has had contact with a confirmed carrier, recently visited a country with an outbreak, or developed symptoms so severe that they require hospital care. Of the 1,707 tests carried out in the US by March 7, 600 were confirmed as coronavirus leading to 22 deaths. Compare this to the UK, a dramatically smaller country, where 27,476 (figure updated on March 11 according to GOV.UK since the above graph was made) people have been tested, of which 456 were confirmed as positive, eight of which have died. The CDC has now stopped reporting how many people have been tested in its daily updates, as it says state numbers are more up to date.

The US currently has 1,321 confirmed cases and 37 confirmed deaths. The CDC's figures have it as 938 cases and 29 deaths, though they note "In the event of a discrepancy between CDC cases and cases reported by state and local public health officials, data reported by states should be considered the most up to date." 

While the estimates for the US could potentially be higher, as they don’t currently include tests carried out in state and private labs, even the highest estimates put the investigation at 18 tests per million people, placing them eighth in the eight countries tallied.

Containing spread without adequate testing is highly unlikely as preventative measures such as sealing off highly affected areas and recommendations of self-isolation cannot be employed. Without efficient testing, current estimates are skewed, which would explain the disproportionately high death rate in the US. Health officials need to establish a realistic picture of those affected to be able to properly assess how the virus is behaving within the population of the United States, contributing towards global information regarding which individuals are at a higher risk.

Currently, it’s believed that the elderly with preexisting medical conditions including diabetes are most vulnerable to the illness. Many younger people without further medical complications are able to fight off the illness and suffer only mild symptoms, but carriers still play a key role in the spread of the pathogen.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, find out what that means and how that affects you. If you're curious what COVID-19 actually does to the body, we spoke to WHO officials to find out. 

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