Governors and mayors have been clamoring for more testing kits and testing stations. I suspect they know that more testing isn’t a panacea, but don’t have much else to say. Therefore, they blame other political leaders and the medical establishment because they don’t have enough testing.
First, let’s inject some reality into this discussion. President Trump would like his public-private partnership to produce 5 million tests a day. That isn’t going to happen, for many logistical reasons. Even if we could achieve that unlikely goal, we had 157 million Americans in the workforce before the pandemic. At best, that would provide one test per month.
Second, let’s also consider what these tests really tell us. If you take the rapid test for the coronavirus and get negative results, what does that tell you? You might not have the virus. You may have the virus but have not shown symptoms. Or, you might currently have the virus, and the test is flawed.
If you doubt the last possibility, consider the fact that when the rapid test was used on 239 known positive samples at the Cleveland Clinic, the test came back positive 85 percent of the time. Put another way, it was wrong 15 percent of the time. That means 15 percent of people who actually were infected could leave not knowing they have the virus.
In the real world, it appears that the problem is even worse. One scientific paper (not yet peer-reviewed) concluded that the real accuracy of some of these tests was closer to 60 percent. The problem isn’t just the test, but the way its administered. Sometimes people don’t shove the swab stick far enough up their nose to get an accurate sample.
It is time to inject some reality into this discussion of testing. The mantra from so many politicians that “we need more testing” sounds good until you look at the numbers.