Enlarge /. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence with facial expression during a roundtable senior meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House cabinet room in Washington, DC, June 15, 2020.
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States and cities were almost completely closed earlier this year to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Many of these state and local authorities have now relaxed the restrictions and allowed people to revert to their pre-pandemic habits and behaviors. COVID-19 cases are currently increasing in many of these regions, but the White House is pushing the message that COVID-19 peaks are due to an increase in testing and nothing more.
President Donald Trump said during a meeting on Monday: "If we stop testing now, we would have very few, if any, cases." Vice President Mike Pence doubled this message later in a conversation with several state governors later that day, trying to downplay new outbreaks in their states.
"I just want to encourage all of you as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the scale of the increase in testing," Pence told the governors, according to a recording of the Mal York meeting.
The Vice President has headed the government's official coronavirus task force since late February. This task force has consistently cleared critics and downplayed expertise to overcome the economic impact of the pandemic as quickly as possible.
Pence repeated Trump, referring to pockets in which COVID-19 exists as "embers", a frame repeated by Alex Azar, the secretary for health and human services. Certain locations, such as nursing homes and especially meat processing plants, have experienced major outbreaks. "If one of them burns," said Azar metaphorically, "we have to get there immediately."
Encourage people to say that we can safely reopen the country. As we speak today, because people go back to hospitals and elective surgery and get normal care, hospitalization rates could increase. According to our most current information, hospitalizations due to coronavirus are declining across the country.
Unfortunately, Pence was wrong. Pretty much all major trackers (Johns Hopkins University, New York Times, NPR) are increasing COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations in well over a dozen states.
Back to the bad days
This year, more than 2.1 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 and more than 110,000 have died. However, the consequences are not evenly distributed. Urban hot spots such as Seattle and New York City seemed to cause a high percentage of the sick early on. The disease is much more common six months a year.
Increased tests lead to an increased diagnosis, but only up to a point. Testing zero people will surely lead to zero positive results – that much is true. Indeed, in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, the United States had insufficient testing capacity, so any new series of tests appeared to increase the data.
However, the testing situation has roughly stabilized with an average of 461,000 tests per day in June, and we now have clearer data on the positivity rates – the number of tests performed that are positive for SARS-CoV-2.
When the tests are complete and the prevalence of the disease is stable or decreasing, the data should show a lower positive rate on average. For example, if you hypothetically tested an average of 1,000 people per day for a week and an average of 50 tests per day were positive, you would have a 5 percent positive rate. If you've increased this hypothetical testing capacity to an average of 1,500 people per day and the number of cases has been stable or decreased, you may still see around 50 positive results per day – a positive positivity rate of around 3 percent. However, if you keep the test capacity at 1,500 people a day and see 100 cases a day, your positive rate is now over 6 percent and your number of local cases is increasing.
According to current data, the current positivity of Virginia on June 16 is 7.4 percent. Overall, this is a significant improvement for the Commonwealth: the rate peaked over 20 percent in April and has generally moved lower since testing has increased.
Arizona, on the other hand, is on the opposite path. Although an overall positivity rate of 8.7 percent is reported, government data shows that the number has increased every week since May 17. Last week the state hit a record high of 14 percent positivity and by June 16 this week's rate is 21 percent. (This may decrease as more test results are received over the rest of the week.)
Similar situations develop elsewhere. For example, Texas reported record COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, according to The Texas Tribune. According to the state, North Carolina also recorded a hospital stay on Monday. And Oregon, after a long drop in hospitalization, started rising again in June, which coincided with a sharp increase in new cases, reports The Oregonian.
Arizona public health experts have linked this surge to the state's early reopening efforts. The increase was also not unpredictable for the administration. Trump said in an interview in May that he expected "there will be more death" when the country went online again, and told ABC News: "Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be severely affected? Yes. But we have to open our country and we have to open it soon. "