Texas Is Loosening Its Pandemic Restrictions. But We'll Need Much More Testing To Open All The Way.

Apr 24, 2020

Retail businesses can reopen in Texas today – as long as they’re only doing curbside or delivery. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to announce the next phase in the state’s loosening of restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus.

But are we ready?

We’ve been hearing for weeks now that there are three things needed to stop or slow the pandemic: a vaccine (still a ways off), contact tracing and testing.

Until a vaccine can be created, keeping tabs on who has the virus and who they came in contact with will be key to stopping transmission.

The White House has insisted there is adequate testing, but doctors and public health experts disagree. And here in Texas, the rate of testing still lags behind many other states – and far behind the levels recommended by public health experts.

"We actually need eight times that testing capacity, according to experts, to actually track and contain the virus."

As of Thursday, Texas had done about 225,000 tests – typically between 5,000 and 10,000 a day. On Wednesday, that was about 8,500 tests or about 29 per 100,000 residents. Though it has improved, it’s still among the lowest in the nation.

Locally, Travis County has done about 9,000 tests in total. (That data is a week old, though, and the numbers may have increased significantly since then. It would still be far short of what experts say is needed to keep a handle on the virus.)

“We actually need eight times that testing capacity, according to experts, to actually track and contain the virus,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Thursday. “Eight times the testing capacity that we currently have.”

Without that quantity of testing, there’s no way to know how widely the virus is spreading.

“Basically [it] means we are constantly in the dark – like, we don’t really know what is happening,” says Claus Wilke, a professor of integrative biology at UT Austin. “Of course everybody wants to reopen – but how do you do that safely? And it’s really difficult if you’re not even testing enough.”

MAP | Drive-Thru COVID-19 Testing Locations In Austin And How To Access Them

If we’re only testing the sickest people, we may be missing many others who are carrying the virus and may not be showing any symptoms at all – and those people can continue to spread it.

Researchers at Harvard’s Global Health Institute found that a city the size of Austin would need to be doing about 2,000 tests each day to keep the virus under control. Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledges the city is not even close to having enough testing to fully reopen. The exact rate of testing city leaders want to see is still an open discussion, though.

“From where I sit, I think the goal is going to be more like 1,000 tests a day or 5,000 a week,” Adler said Thursday. “But setting those levels and those expectations and whether we need to go past that is one of the open questions right now.”

So why aren’t there more tests available? Asked about that earlier this week, Austin’s Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott indicated it’s a problem in the supply chains. At first there was not enough of a certain chemical to do the tests.

“Then we had limitations on the ability to run the tests. Now we have limitations on the test-collection kits,” he said Wednesday.

Many of the testing kits are being sent to known hotspots, like New York, Michigan and Louisiana. On Thursday, Austin announced a new procedure for getting people tested more quickly. The city says it will be able to do 2,000 tests a week and could expand – that's in addition to any expanded capacity at private labs.

Abbott has promised a surge in testing capacity in Texas by the end of the month. But those surges have been promised before. And without the ability to identify the majority of cases and stop them before they spread the virus further, Texas could find itself back in lockdown.

Got a tip? Email Matt Largey at mlargey@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.

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