There may be a tendency at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic to think the worst is behind us. The evidence to that effect is all around, as states and communities are gradually relaxing some of their restrictions and more people are out and about. The world seems, at least, a little brighter than it has in the past couple of months.

However, all of this — every single piece of it — needs to come with a big asterisk, for there is much more likely to come in this COVID-19 drama, which will almost certainly continue to haunt us until a vaccine is found.

In the meantime, we must rely on other weapons.

One of the biggest of them is testing for the virus. Until we can do this on a much larger scale, we are still practically groping in the darkness as we move through this pandemic.

This country has lagged in testing for the coronavirus. Big promises were made early on by the White House about the number of tests and the ability to get tested practically anytime you desired. We’re making progress but, 70,000 U.S. deaths into this plague, we are nowhere near where we really need to be.

Meanwhile, South Dakota may offer a good example of the double-edged sword in testing.

There have been several reports noting that South Dakota’s number of COVID-19 positive tests have been dropping of late, even with the Smithfield situation impacting the state’s numbers. While the state was seeing triple-digit daily case increases a few weeks ago, the numbers are lower now. (The two-week closure of the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls has no doubt aided in this.)

However, a more telling statistic can be found in the number of tests being processed by state and commercial labs. Generally, South Dakota is seeing only about 200-400 tests being processed daily. Since state officials say they are aiming to do 3,000 tests a day — and potentially taking that to 5,000 daily tests — it’s clear that the current load is lagging and it’s probably producing low infection numbers that may give people a deceptive sense of security.

(The state is currently conducting some mass, drive-up testing in Sioux Falls in response to the Smithfield situation. Gov. Kristi Noem said Tuesday that 1,500 tests were conducted on Monday’s first day of testing.)

Contrast this to Nebraska. That state has seen its cases spike dramatically the last two weeks. Both South Dakota and Nebraska crossed the 2,000-case threshold on the same day (April 23); Nebraska has now topped 6,000 known cases while South Dakota is sitting at about 2,700. One big reason for this difference is the fact that Nebraska, which has a little more than double South Dakota’s population (1.9 million versus 884,000) is testing about four times more people a day now (1,200 to 1,400 tests processed) than South Dakota is.

The more you test, the more cases you are going to find. And, contrary to what some people may think, you actually WANT to find cases and treat the situation based on that knowledge.

So, while we may feel good about the signs of revival on the economic and social fronts, we would be much better served by seeing more testing done — as well as vigorous tracing to find other exposures — even if it does expand the case numbers. It’s what we know that counts most in this pandemic fight, not what you don’t know.


(4) comments

Steve Jacobsen

Mr. Hertz, I found your op-ed piece today gave me good reason to pause and ponder. I do, however wish you hard led with paragraph #7. I fear many may only read half way through your piece today.

Steve Jacobsen

I failed to note in my previous comment that I, the writer of that comment, am Chris Jacobsen. My husband will greatly appreciate this clarification.


Thank you, Kelly, for continuing to follow the facts. I fear people are being lulled into thinking that we are nearing the end of the COVID journey when the facts say we still have a long way to go.

E pluribus

South Dakotans think the CDC fixed the problem with Smithfield in Sioux Falls. But they bypassed local authorities to provide laughably weak “suggestions,” telling Smithfield, that their "recommendations are discretionary and are not required or mandated by the CDC.”

Do we really think that’s going to keep the virus confined to Sioux Falls?

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