Testing for COVID-19 hits a slump

But tests are available, and people who need them should get them, says DHS head

Wisconsin National Guard members collect COVID-19 testing specimens in July. (Wisconsin National Guard photo via Flickr)

Testing for COVID-19 has hit a lull in Wisconsin, with many fewer people getting tests for the coronavirus than the state Department of Health Services (DHS) says is possible.

There is more than one reason, and what’s behind that trend is unclear.

Public concern about the disease may be diminishing, and reducing the demand for testing — even though health officials warn that the virus is still spreading in the community, and it’s not clear whether it’s really slowing down.

There are continuing reports of shortages and diversions of testing supplies, according to DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, which could also explain some of the testing slowdown.

And continuing to expand testing capacity remains a top priority, Palm said Friday, especially with school resuming soon and possibly increasing the need for more COVID-19 tests.

“There certainly is not enough testing here in Wisconsin or in the nation overall to do at the level that you would want to do it,” Palm told reporters during an online media briefing.  

For public health practitioners, extensive testing is key to ascertaining how widespread the virus is. Since the COVID-19 pandemic first surfaced in Wisconsin early this year, health officials have focused on expanding testing capacity.

By early May, it was possible to conduct 11,000 tests a day, up from 120 a day at the beginning of March. In mid-July, labs around the state could conduct 22,800 tests a day. And earlier this month, the capacity shot up again, making it possible to offer more than 26,000 tests daily, with 86 labs available to analyze the test results.

Yet demand for tests has fallen back.

The number of tests analyzed each day fluctuates widely, but through the month of July, they’ve generally risen; starting in early August, they have begun to decline.

As to exactly why, “I think we are still asking some of those questions ourselves,” Palm told the Wisconsin Examiner.

 

“Some of it is related to testing demand,” Palm said — with the raw number of new confirmed cases generally trending downward in the last couple of weeks, “that certainly could be impacting demand for testing.”

While the number of cases is down, however, the percentage of tests that are positive is increasing. With a smaller number of tests overall, however, it’s not yet clear what that means, said Tracy DiSalvo, the acting director of the DHS bureau of communicable diseases.

Testing supply shortages continue to be reported nationwide, with “anecdotes about diversion of our resources to other places,” Palm said. “Providers and labs and other parts of the system are worried about whether they’ll be next on the list — the diversion list.”

Access to COVID-19 resources should be part of a national strategy, said Gov. Tony Evers. He made the comment when a reporter asked during the briefing whether he agreed with former Vice President Joe Biden, who said during his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president Thursday night that if elected in November he would put in place a national response to the virus.

“Do I support it? Yes. I also supported it, frankly, last February and March, as do most other governors,” Evers said. “It’s ridiculous for us to be competing with each other for scarce resources when the federal government has the authority and the ability and, frankly, the resources to make it happen in a better way.”

Had there been such a strategy in place, Evers said, “we would be in a better place right now.”

Even with the short-term decline in people who seek testing, said Palm, the state continues to work to expand its capacity.

“We need to make sure we’re continuing to diversify the kind of tests that are available to the people of the state of Wisconsin,” she added.

And state residents who have symptoms of COVID-19, or who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus “should get tested — and there are tests available,” Palm said. “We do have capacity and so we would continue to encourage people who need a test to get a test.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.