The daily exhortations from Governors Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy to “flatten the curve” are working to reduce the spike in COVID-19 infections. But just how much that curve has flattened is unknown.
That’s because a central data point in calculating the curve is a guesstimate: How many people are infected with the virus.
The shortage of COVID-19 tests has meant that only those with symptoms are being tested.
“We're not doing enough testing to really know how many people are infected, which means that we can't put into the model the number of infected people to know where we are on the curve,” said Sarah Allred, an associate professor at Rutgers University in Camden who is a data and computational researcher.
Specifically, researchers don’t know how many people are carrying the virus without showing any symptoms. Allred says it’s not necessary to test everyone to figure that out—just a representative sample. But Governor Murphy says New Jersey, which has the second most cases of coronavirus in the U.S., after New York, can’t do more widespread testing.
“Our best metric for ensuring that our testing resources are being properly dispersed and that our greater medical resources are being put to their highest and best use, especially our health care workers, comes from testing the right people—those who are symptomatic,” he said at one of his recent press conferences.
There doesn’t appear to be consensus on this issue. On the one hand, the CDC recently began taking random blood tests to determine the infection rate. On the other, Murphy’s decision has the support of many health professionals.
Dr. David Alland, chief of infectious disease at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, helped verify a new rapid test for COVID-19. He says at the beginning of the outbreak, the country reacted too slowly to contain the virus through testing.
"We missed the boat with that one and it's very unfortunate," Alland said. “But now we have to take care of the medical situation. And finding out what the prevalence is in the community isn't going to change that."
For example, saving the tests for the symptomatic people allows medical and police personnel to return to work sooner if their family members test negative, Alland said. And hospitals need to know who’s positive in order to separate them from everybody else.
The new rapid test is easing the shortage of test kits and the wait time for results.
Alexander Salerno, a doctor in Newark who serves many low-income patients, is advocating for more widespread testing. His clinic had access to experimental rapid tests in March. During that time, he conducted his own random sampling, and found many patients without COVID-19 symptoms who tested positive.
"And so that's when you hear and read in the news about asymptomatic carriers. They are real and there are plenty of them," Salerno said. "So that's the important need to be able to test everyone."
At Friday's briefing, Governor Cuomo reiterated: "the key to reopening is going to be testing. I've said that from day one. It's going to be a gradual phased process and it's going to be reliant on testing, testing of antibodies, testing for diagnostic results and testing on the scale that we have not done before." He said New York would be partnering with Connecticut and New Jersey to create a regional testing partnership and bring mass testing to scale.