By Elizabeth Hardison
For the Pittsburgh Current
Though Pennsylvania health officials have said that widespread testing for COVID-19 is essential to safely reopen the state, data show that the Commonwealth has so far proved unable to meet the modest testing goals it established at the start of the month.
Experts say that casts doubt on the state’s ability to make safe decisions about reopening counties, even though stay-at-home orders have already been lifted in most Pennsylvania counties.
A Capital-Star review of testing data from the Department of Health found that with just two days left in May, health officials are still 16 percent behind target in their goal to test 2 percent of the state’s population each month — a benchmark that already fell short of what experts recommended for a state with a population of 12.8 million people.
The numbers also reveal just seven instances in May in which the state met its goal to conduct 8,500 tests per day.
Based on the rate at which Pennsylvania has completed new tests over the last month, the Department of Health would have to report record-high testing numbers for the next two days to close the gap and meet its testing goal by June, the analysis found.
Speaking to the press in-person for the first time in months Friday, state officials emphasized that Pennsylvania’s testing capacity has increased since the early days of the pandemic.
State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that the state’s labs and hospitals are “doing much better” getting the materials they need to conduct tests. The state has also established more than 300 testing sites across the state, Levine said, making it easier to get tests to Pennsylvanians who need them.
Levine also insisted that the apparent shortcomings in testing this month won’t hamper Pennsylvania’s ability to safely decide which counties can reopen.
“We have enough data to be able to [make decisions about reopening],” Levine said Friday, during a briefing that she and Gov. Tom Wolf held at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters in suburban Harrisburg.
But public health experts such as Dr. Krys Johnson, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University College of Public Health, aren’t so sure.
Johnson called the state’s testing record “disheartening” — especially since the benchmarks Pennsylvania laid out in its statewide reopening strategy on May 1 were roughly half of what researchers at Harvard University prescribed earlier this spring.
“You shouldn’t be reopening unless you have widespread testing in place for everyone who needs it,” Johnson said. She added, “I think we need to put this reopening on pause until testing is where it needs to be to actually inform our reopening strategy.”
Levine and Wolf did not say what specifically prevented the state from meeting its goal this month. They did suggest, however, that Pennsylvanians have been slow to seek tests, and that the state saw a significant slowdown in testing over Memorial Day weekend.
Wolf also said that Pennsylvanians may be seeking fewer tests than they were in the early days of the pandemic, since case counts have declined and state guidelines still restrict testing to symptomatic patients.
He expressed optimism that testing numbers will continue to increase now that the state has more testing sites.
“It’s not just a matter of having the ability to provide the tests, it’s the ability to do that in areas [across the state],” Wolf said. “But we are in a much better place now in terms of the accessibility of these tests.”
Given the nationwide rush to ramp up testing, Johnson said there could be a number of factors affecting Pennsylvania’s testing strategy that have nothing to do with the state’s leadership.
The lack of a coordinated national testing strategy “has really hindered every state’s response thus far,” Johnson said.
Presented with the explanations that Pennsylvania’s leaders offered Friday, she urged them to be more forthright about the factors that prevent them from meeting their testing goals.
“I truly believe our Department of Health wants to expand testing, but they should be more transparent about why it hasn’t been expanded” at the rates they hoped, Johnson said. “Is it a lack of funding? Are [chemicals] going to other areas? It would be nice if we could hear from our leaders what’s really holding that up and what their plan is to get us where we need to be.”
Elizabeth Hardison is a staff writer with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.