May 16, 2020 - Health

Most states are slowly making progress against the coronavirus

Data: The COVID Tracking Project, The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti/Axios
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti/Axios

Most states are showing advances on two of the key criteria for being able to safely reopen parts of their economies: They’re testing more people and finding fewer infections.

Why it matters: The U.S. has to get the existing outbreak under control before we can even think about easing up on social distancing and managing the ensuing risk of new outbreaks. At this moment, most of the country seems to be moving in the right direction.

This analysis compares states’ performance on two important metrics from the Trump administration’s reopening guidelines: their total caseloads, and the percentage of all coronavirus tests that come back positive.

  • The number of total cases matters because, well, we need to know how many cases there are, or at least have a good idea. And to ease off on social distancing, that number needs to be falling.
  • The percentage of tests that come back positive helps put the total caseload in perspective.
  • If the percentage is too high, it probably just means you’re not testing enough people. If you’re doing more tests and your case count is falling, that percentage should go down — ideally below 10%, per the World Health Organization.

Where it stands: Overall, 32 states in this analysis are moving in the right direction on both fronts.

  • Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey are all toward the front of the pack — another indication that the hardest-hit regions in the country are turning a corner.
  • The Midwest also makes a strong showing: The most improved states include Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
  • The South is bringing up the rear. Arkansas performed the worst in this analysis, getting significantly worse on both metrics.
  • Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina are also moving away from — not toward — the benchmarks for a safe reopening.

The big picture: This is a snapshot. A state performing well on these metrics today does not mean it will keep performing well, or that it’s in any way immune from a second wave of infection. It definitely doesn’t mean the state has beaten the coronavirus.

  • It means things are getting better, right now.

This graphic only shows states' progress on two of the key measures states are advised to use before they start to reopen.

  • Under the Trump administration's guidelines, states should also have a decline in people with flu-like illnesses and fewer COVID-like symptoms over 14 days. In addition, hospitals should be able to treat all patients without crisis care, and there should be a "robust testing program" for health care workers.

Between the lines: We excluded six states from this analysis, either because of problems with their data or because they have fewer than 10 cases overall — too small of a sample to helpfully track changes.

  • Virginia, for example, had been juking the stats by including antibody tests when it reported its percentage of positive cases. That’s a misleading way to make the case count look smaller, and means those data are unreliable. (The state said Thursday it would stop doing this.)

What we’re watching: A handful of the states improving on total cases and percentage of positive tests are also among those reporting a decline in the number of COVID-related hospitalizations — another key metric.

The bottom line: Every piece of data in this epidemic has some flaws. Counting total cases is hamstrung by testing. Some states aren’t reporting their hospitalizations. Their reporting standards for deaths vary.

  • But take all those data points together, with all the appropriate caveats, and the picture is pretty consistent: Led by big improvements in some of the hardest-hit areas, much of the country is moving slowly in the right direction.
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