Washington’s COVID-19 testing collapses and governor abandons his “dials” after just one month

Jun 5, 2020

For the second time in about a month, Washington state leaders have completely changed how they track and report key metrics in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, as we noted, the previous dashboard with five dials proved to be largely useless, inaccurate, and irrelevant. Soon afterward, state officials stopped updating the dials and now they have abandoned them entirely.

The new dashboard the governor has put up is, potentially, an improvement.

For example, where his old dashboard with the dials claimed daily testing for COVID-19 was improving, saying the amount of testing was “very roughly steady,” his new dashboard tells a different story. The new metric measures the number of tests per new COVID-19 case. The new dashboard confirms what we have been saying. It shows a steep decline in testing in recent weeks, back to the level it was in late April.

This decline in testing is even more troubling because the number of new COVID-19 cases is declining. For the ratio of tests to cases to decline, the amount of daily testing must be falling even faster than new cases. A look at the updated seven-day average of daily testing using Department of Health data, shows that despite a brief increase in daily testing a couple weeks ago, testing collapsed soon after and we are now at the same level it was on April 26 – 39 days ago.

Strangely, Secretary of Health John Weisman claimed during a recent press conference that “the numbers have been going up,” with the governor saying we had hit 8,000 tests recently. This is simply incorrect. Weisman referenced DOH’s dashboard, but neither that dashboard nor the new state COVID-19 dashboard show daily testing increasing or anything close to 8,000 daily tests.

Testing is particularly important if we are to make progress in fighting COVID-19, saving lives, and reopening the economy. At a briefing with state officials and the Institute for Disease Modeling last week, the modelers provided this chart, which notes that “faster and more testing” is the most effective strategy to help reopen the economy while keeping the rate of transmission per case below 1. The sharp drop in testing means we are missing the best opportunity to get the state working again.

On the positive side, the new testing metric sets a target. This is in contrast to the previous dashboard dials, which had no target and were entirely subjective. It is worth noting that the target happens to be 50 tests per new case, a number that is certainly arbitrary. Any target number perfectly divisible by five is not scientific.           

The clarity of the target is not matched by clarity of accountability. Although the governor is nominally leading the effort to fight COVID-19, the responsibility for making progress – and the accountability for failure – rests on the shoulders of each county. If our economy remains closed, the fingers can be pointed at county governments, even as state agencies are responsible for approving or rejecting county plans.

Clear targets serve to focus efforts and resources, which is important. If, however, elected-officials and agency leaders fail to make progress, and continue to inflict harm on workers and families, clear lines of accountability will  push them do fix mistakes or be removed so more capable leadership can be put in place. The new dashboard needs to add clear accountability to clear targets.

Testing is a good place to start adding that accountability. Thus far, the excuse for the lack of testing has been to point the finger at the federal government. This is politically convenient, but is contradicted by the reality that California, Oregon, and many other states have increased daily testing. It is time to be clear about who is responsible for increased testing and make that clear.

It has been 135 days since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Washington state, and 73 days since the governor put the entire state into lockdown. Yet, only now do we have clear targets. With so many jobs lost and businesses closed, waiting more than two months for clarity has been extremely costly. The new dashboard makes clear our failure thus far to take the steps that are most important in fighting COVID-19. It should now be used to get state officials on track, and for the public to demand accountability if we continue to flounder.

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