As coronavirus cases surge in parts of the United States, the rate of positive tests is also increasing.
The seven-day average of people testing positive for the coronavirus relative to the number of tests conducted is over 5% in 21 states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In May, the World Health Organization advised governments to wait until the positivity rate had been 5% or lower for 14 days before reopening. The WHO initially set the goal at 10%.
“As we learned, more the 5% figure was felt to be a better goal,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director at the American Public Health Association. “Since we are so far behind testing in the U.S., some areas are still using 10% as their goal. We do need to go to 5% nationally once we broadly accomplish the 10% goal.”
There are nine states with a seven-day average above 10%: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
In early May, as Texas reopened its economy, Gov. Greg Abbott said a 10% positivity rate would be a “warning flag.” The positivity rate in Texas was 12.7% on Thursday. On Friday, Abbott scaled back his state’s reopening, requiring restaurants to reduce their capacity from 75% to 50% and bars to be open only for delivery or takeout. He also forced river rafting companies to close and gave local officials the authority to stop any public gathering of 100 or more people.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also suspended the on-premise sale of alcohol at bars. Florida’s positivity rate is 14.2%.
Arizona has the highest rate of any state, at 23.2%. Gov. Doug Ducey recently gave cities in Arizona the authority to require masks to be worn in public, and many have exercised it, including Phoenix, Tucson, and Scottsdale. At this point, Ducey has not announced any other restrictions.
While there are no doubt multiple causes of this increase, one cause stands out.
“There are numerous surges occurring across the country that are directly related to relaxation of social distancing guidelines and to reopening that occurred too quickly and that did not follow public health guidance,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. Wen, who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner and as the head of Planned Parenthood, added, “By now, we know what it takes to contain COVID-19; we need to keep following public health experts.”
Social distancing has dropped markedly in June. Driving and walking are up nearly 23% and 40%, respectively, since June 1, according to data from Apple. Use of mass transit is also up 23%. Data from Google shows that activity at parks and public spaces increased in June, at times reaching almost 80% over baseline.
Both Utah and Oregon paused the reopening of their economies on June 11. At the time, Utah was at 9.7%. Now, it is at 12%.
Oregon, however, was at 3.4% at that time and now stands at 4.4%. It has not reached 5% in June.
But that does not mean Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was too hasty.
“[The positivity rate] is only one of multiple criteria needed to evaluate the safety and timing of reopening,” Wen said.
Benjamin added, “Oregon is managing risk of reopening very thoughtfully. Wish others were doing this. Reopening must be slower and measured.”
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