Harvard study says only nine states ready to safely reopen

Only nine states are running enough COVID-19 tests to contain their outbreaks and reopen by May 15, according to a Harvard-NPR analysis released Thursday.

Those nine states also would need to be tracing and isolating positive cases and their contacts in order to open safely by May 15, the study said. 

The states meeting that criteria are Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. Those states have enough testing to test all infected people and their close contacts who may have been exposed to the virus. Those states are also seeing 10 percent or less of their tests coming back positive, meaning they are likely casting a wide enough net in finding new infections, according to recommendations from the World Health Organization. The more people who are tested for the coronavirus, the lower the positivity rate is expected to be. 

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But states with much larger populations and bigger COVID-19 outbreaks, including New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, are running far fewer tests than are needed to lift some physical distancing restrictions by May 15.

While governors in those states are moving more slowly toward reopening, states that are already lifting restrictions, including Georgia, Texas and Colorado, are also far from meeting the minimum testing targets set by Harvard. 

“The numbers are sobering: Overall, our need for testing has only increased over the past weeks. Less than a dozen states have gotten ahead of this virus,” reads the analysis by the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

Overall, more than half of the U.S. is either reopened or planning to reopen in the coming weeks.

Ashish Jha, director of the institute, told NPR the analysis is based on a model of future case counts by Youyang Gu, whose work is frequently cited by the White House. 

Based on that model, the U.S. needs to run more than 900,000 COVID-tests per day, according to the institute, but the U.S. is running an average of 248,000 tests per day, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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States with larger outbreaks need to do more testing. 

For example, New Jersey needs to run more than 98,000 tests a day by May 15 to reopen, but is currently running an average of 6,800 tests per day, according to the analysis. 

Jha noted that if social distancing requirements are relaxed, testing needs may grow because new cases are likely to increase. 

Even if a state has adequate testing, Jha said, it also needs to have enough contact tracing capabilities to spot and isolate new cases before reopening, otherwise new outbreaks could occur. 

States that have already allowed some businesses to reopen are not doing enough testing, according to the analysis. 

For example, Georgia needs to run 26,000 tests per day to reopen by May 15, but is running an average of 8,600 tests per day. 

In Texas, the state is running an average of 17,735 tests per day but needs to run 27,282 tests by May 15.