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VERIFY: Increased testing does not account for rise in COVID-19 cases on its own

For months, this claim keeps popping up: COVID-19 cases are going up only because testing is going up. This is misleading.

WASHINGTON — The United States saw 2 million new COVID-19 cases in the first 16 days of November, a sign that the country has a rough winter ahead. 

But many people, including the president, have publicized the claim that the only reason cases are going up is because of high levels of testing. So let's Verify:


Are COVID cases only going up because testing rates are going up?


No. Cases are increasing faster than testing, and the percent of tests which come back positive is on a steep incline.



"You know why we have cases? All we do is test," President Donald Trump told a New Hampshire rally in late October. But the data doesn't back up this claim.

Verify researchers used data from The COVID Tracking Project to try to find an answer in the numbers. We first found the day-to-day percent change in new COVID-19 cases and new tests administered. We then found the 14-day average percentage changes of both and charted them against one another.

We found that while cases and tests are both increasing, cases have been increasing at a faster pace since early October.

Credit: WUSA9
Changes in the 14-day averages of positive COVID-19 tests and total tests administered in the United States from August 1 to November 17, 2020.

Johns Hopkins University has a number of tools to visualize testing data available to the public online. This data is the most helpful when taken all together as a full picture, not cherry-picking which data looks best to you, Dr. Amesh Adalja told us.

"What you have to take into consideration is that it's not just the cases, you have to look at the percent positivity of tests. So if you see a place where testing has gone up, but the percent positivity has gone up, that tells you that the outbreak is accelerating faster than testing."

The percent positivity rate, which Dr. Adalja says is the most important, shows the percentage of tests administered that come back positive. According to data from Johns Hopkins, percent positivity is on the rise in the U.S. 

On October 1, the 7-day average percent positivity of tests in the U.S. was 4.2%. As of November 19, that number has risen to 10%.

"If cases were up just because of testing, you would not see the percent positivity go up as well," Dr. Adalja explains. "When the percent positivity is going up, it tells you not only are you testing more, but the virus is actually spreading more and not keeping pace with your testing."

So we can Verify that the increases in testing do not account for the rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Experts agree there is an actual community spread happening which is driving cases to rise faster than tests.

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