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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.

Go deeper

Sep 16, 2020 - Health

CDC director suggests face masks offer more COVID-19 protection than vaccine would

CDC director Robert Redfield suggested in a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that face masks are "more guaranteed" to protect against the coronavirus than a vaccine, citing the potential for some people to not become immune to the virus after receiving the shot.

What he's saying: "These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have. And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings. I've said if we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we'd bring this pandemic under control," he said.

Sep 17, 2020 - Health

The risks of moving too fast on a coronavirus vaccine

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The scientific race for a coronavirus vaccine is moving at record-shattering speed. Making the most of that work — translating a successful clinical product into real-world progress — will require some patience.

Why it matters: If we get a vaccine relatively soon, the next big challenge will be balancing the need to get it into people's hands with the need to keep working on other solutions that might prove more effective.