More COVID testing is a key to making us safer this winter

As winter arrives and COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the country, most states are not hitting the testing targets that would allow us to “suppress” the virus, meaning catch isolated cases before they turn into clusters and then outbreaks. And, rather than centrally coordinating a comprehensive ramp-up of testing for all states, the federal government has mostly left states in the lurch on testing infrastructure. That’s why PIRG has launched a campaign calling on governors across the country to commit to hitting a testing target that will keep us safer in the coming months.

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Matt Wellington
Director, Public Health Campaigns

Author: Matt Wellington

Director, Public Health Campaigns

Started on staff: 2013
B.A., magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, Manhattan College

Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.

Winter has arrived and presented a brand new set of challenges when it comes to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. With much of the country experiencing uncontrolled spread of the virus, the top priority needs to be getting cases down now, which in most places means shutting down non-essential businesses when and where needed and encouraging people to stay home. 

No doubt that will be a huge sacrifice to make. But with over 280,000 lives already lost and thousands more dying every day, we have to do whatever it takes to get the spread of the virus under control. Top economists agree that’s also the best way to restore the economy in the long run. 

In order for the sacrifice of temporary shutdowns to be worth it, and for us to be able to curb the spread of COVID-19 and keep it contained, we need to dramatically ramp up our testing infrastructure in almost every state across the country. If we do we will save thousands of lives, help make the winter months safer for all, and ensure that the sacrifices we make now to stay home and slow the spread will not be in vain. 

Currently, most states are not hitting the testing targets that would allow us to “suppress” the virus, meaning catch isolated cases before they turn into clusters and then outbreaks. And, rather than centrally coordinating a comprehensive ramp-up of testing for all states, the federal government has mostly left states in the lurch on testing infrastructure. 

That’s why PIRG has launched a campaign calling on governors across the country to commit to hitting a testing target that will keep us safer in the coming months.

What level of testing do we need in order to suppress COVID-19?

The Brown School of Public Health and Harvard Global Health Institute have built a model that projects how much testing each state needs to effectively suppress the virus, given the size of their outbreaks. We’re calling on governors to commit to meeting and maintaining their state’s testing target based on this model. 

A safer winter in which each of us has access to the necessary testing infrastructure will require:

  • Expanding testing locations to include a variety of options such as drive-thru and walk-up sites, as well as mobile testing units that visit at-risk settings such as churches and urban neighborhoods.

  • Breaking down barriers to testing to ensure that anyone who needs a test can get a test.

  • Ensuring all test results come back within 48 hours.

  • Launching a state-sponsored educational campaign to inform people of where they can get tested and how.

  • Targeting testing efforts at high-risk settings such as nursing homes, meat-packing factories, schools and prisons.

  • Increasing states’ purchasing power by forming consortiums between governors, similar to the one started by Gov. Larry Hogan and the National Governors Association.

How can you get more tests in your state?

Most states still don't have the adequate testing infrastructure to suppress COVID-19. Nationally, we need to be doing 4 times as much testing as we are now. However, the states that are hitting their testing targets are using tried-and-tested strategies that we can replicate elsewhere. 

Maine offers an example of successful testing infrastructure. It has hit its suppression level testing target, and anyone who needs a test can get a test, with or without symptoms. You don’t need a test order from a healthcare provider, and there are dozens of testing sites available across Maine’s sixteen counties. And in response to increasing COVID cases, state health officials partnered with pharmacies to provide free rapid tests across Maine.

What’s the bigger picture?

As we acknowledge the tragedy of more than 280,000 American deaths due to COVID-19, we reflect on our national response to the pandemic, and how this level of suffering ultimately could have been avoided if our leaders had more closely followed the recommendations of the experts — on testing, but also on contact tracing, medical equipment delivery, and financial support to make it easier for Americans to stay home.

But we can’t let the mistakes of the past dictate how we respond to this crisis today. While safe and effective vaccines are coming soon, we still have months to go before they’re widely distributed and taken by a broad swath of the public. So the best way forward now — in which we can save thousands of lives and regain some sense of normalcy — is to ramp up our ability to test widely and efficiently.

What can I do to help?

We know how we can get this done, and we know why it’s so urgent that we do — now our leaders need to commit to doing it. To get that commitment, we’ll need broad grassroots support — and that’s where you come in. Send a message to your governor calling for a statewide commitment to meeting our testing targets for suppressing COVID-19. 

If we put this plan into action and meet our testing targets, you could be able to have a safer, healthier winter, as well as a renewed sense of confidence in our state leaders, knowing that we are doing what it takes to keep each other safe. Of course, whether we can make this vision a reality depends just as much on us all continuing to follow the best public health protocols as on states’ ability to ramp up testing. It’s just as important as ever that we all keep physically distancing, wearing masks, and limiting gatherings and non-essential travel. But adding more testing to the equation is key to getting this virus under control and preventing widespread community outbreaks so we can reopen the economy safely -- and that’s why it’s imperative that our governors increase testing.

Take action.


Learn more

CovidExitStrategy’s state-by-state coronavirus response tracker

“Start over and do it right,” an open letter to America’s decision makers, on behalf of economists and financial experts across the country

PIRG and health professionals called for bold action to save lives and slow the spread in July

PIRG’s Together Against COVID campaign

Matt Wellington
Director, Public Health Campaigns

Author: Matt Wellington

Director, Public Health Campaigns

Started on staff: 2013
B.A., magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, Manhattan College

Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.