Fact check: No evidence Virginia's testing methodology may significantly delay reopening
The claim: Virginia's new method for testing for coronavirus may significantly delay the state's reopening
After the state of Virginia announced last week a change in how it will count individual coronavirus tests, an article in Just the News examined the possible impact of the change on Virginia and its efforts to ease rules imposed due to the virus.
"That policy may serve to sharply drive up case numbers, which may in turn significantly delay the reopening of the state," Just the News said. "Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has stated that the state will begin its first phase of reopening only when state officials have logged 14 straight days of declining case numbers and hospitalizations."
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A look at the numbers
The change was announced May 1, after data on the state’s coronavirus surveillance page showed what appeared to be a dramatic one-day increase in testing, from 90,843 to 105,648.
While the number of tests administered shot up dramatically, and the number of positive tests jumped May 1 by 1,055 in one day, as the Just the News article suggested, the percentage of people who have gotten tested and received positive test results dropped by about a percentage point, to 16%.
By Wednesday, the figures were 20,256 positive cases out of 127,938 tests, or 15.8%.
The state has reported 713 virus-related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins survey.
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There was no evidence that the new methodology, which produced an increase in cases, might delay the phased reopening of the state.
Northam, in announcing plans to reopen some businesses May 15, said, “We have slowed the spread, but we are not out of the woods yet.
“We must continue to move forward carefully."
Northam added that "testing is key to that,” emphasizing the need to do even more testing, which the new methodology reflects. He made no reference to the increase in the number of tests, the increase in positive cases or the drop in percentage of positive cases in relation to the larger number of tests.
He has said in the past that key criteria in making the call involves the percentage of cases relative to the number of tests, as well as the number of deaths and hospitalizations trending down.
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In announcing the change in methodology, Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver noted at a news briefing that under the old system, a person tested for COVID-19 would be counted only once, but under the new system, if a single patient was tested four times, the Virginia Department of Health would count all four tests. “That’s the difference.”
This would involve, for example, health care workers who are repeatedly tested.
Virginia's two systems
The VDH's new policy combines two systems for capturing information and lab testing data: the Virginia Electronic Disease Surveillance System, which collects case information and lab testing data, and the Virginia Outbreak Surveillance System, which captures outbreak information.
"These two systems connect in some ways, but are intended for different purposes," according to the VDH. It said, however, that it was combining the news systems May 1 "to give a better picture of how many COVID-19 cases are associated with an outbreak."
Oliver said the new methodology will make it easier for the state to calculate the total percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive. That is considered important in evaluating the severity of outbreaks in different areas and eventually whether the virus appears to be accelerating or slowing.
Oliver said the state decided to change the counting method to better reflect the resources used in testing, noting that while some other states also count that way, there is no national standard.
Virginia has ranked near the bottom among states in testing.
In the latest data on the pandemic in Virginia, the graphic shows a dramatic increase in tests, reflecting the change of methodology. However, the line showing "percent positivity as a 7-day average" continues its downward trend, indicating the jump in testing has not affected the decline in positive cases
"We know individual people, especially health care workers and those in high-risk settings, may be tested more than once over time," the VDH policy says. "This new method of providing test data also allows us to provide the number of tests per day,"
It adds, "We believe these data to be a better representation of SARS-CoV-2 testing in Virginia, and a better guide to the public and policy-makers as they assess availability."
John Solomon, editor of Just The News, tells USA TODAY in an email that the statement in the story is based on information from a state official and is consistent with what the governor said in a briefing on April 24.
Northam, Solomon notes, said the key to moving into Phase 1 of reopening Virginia, based on increased testing, requires a downward trend of the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations over 14 days, increased testing and tracing, and enough hospital capacity for all needs in Virginia.
Solomon says a state official said that if a single individual was tested on different days and both tests came back positive, those would count as two separate positive cases of the disease in the state's logs.
"Thus, if the percentage of positive cases jumped up and/or stayed elevated because multiple patients tested positive multiple times, the 14-day window would have to be adjusted and the phased approach delayed," Solomon writes.
"The fact that it hasn’t happened is good news. But it doesn’t make what that official told us inaccurate, nor does it make what we reported inaccurate," he adds. "There are a lot of ‘may happen’ scenarios that have occurred, and not occurred, in this pandemic."
Our ruling: Partly false
We rate the claim PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. While the article accurately states that the change in methodology for counting coronavirus has caused the numbers to spike, there is no evidence that it may significantly delay the reopening of the state. Indeed, by reflecting a truer number of tests, and by showing decrease in the percentage of positive cases relative to the number of tests, that should serve to bolster the state's intent to phase in a reopening by mid-May.
Our fact-check sources:
- Virginia Department of Health, coronavirus data
- Office of governor of Virginia
- The Roanoke Times
- Virginia Department of Health, policy update
- Office of governor of Virginia, latest coronavirus stats
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