MILWAUKEE (AP) – The coronavirus test numbers that gave much of the country to the pandemic are likely to be irregular within the next week, experts say on Friday as fewer people are tested on Thanksgiving holiday weekend and test sites are observed for shorter hours.
As a result, there may be a potential reduction in reported infections, offering the illusion that the spread of the virus will be alleviated if, in fact, the numbers say little about where the nation stands in the fight against COVID-19. According to Johns Hopkins University, the number of Americans achieving a positive result exceeded 13 million on Friday.
“I just hope people don’t misinterpret the numbers and think there’s no significant wave of Thanksgiving and then end up making Christmas, Hanukkah and other travel plans,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a professor at George Washington University and emergency doctor.
A similar pattern unfolds over many weekends. As some test centers, laboratories, and government offices are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, the number of COVID cases often decreases every Sunday and Monday, peaking only on Tuesdays.
Dr. Mark Rupp, a professor and head of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said the effect of Thanksgiving is likely to be an enlarged version of the weekend data. Thursday’s holiday will exacerbate the record-breaking controversy over the long weekend and artificially suppress reported numbers for four to five days before the test results catch up.
Johns Hopkins University reported more than 2 million tests a few days before Thanksgiving as people prepared to travel, but that number dropped to less than 1.2 million tests on Thanksgiving Day. The latter number, as well as the number of positive cases, which fell by about a third of Friday, can be adjusted as more results arrive.
In several states and cities, officials reported a significant drop in Friday tests and reminded people not to read the improvements. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said the decline means residents will not know for weeks how much their efforts to slow the spread have affected the rate of positive tests in the state.
While the test wasn’t available on Thursdays and Fridays, health officials said they anecdotally jumped on people who were tested before deciding whether to travel or gather for Thanksgiving. They warned that tests were often snapshots, not a complete guarantee that someone had not been exposed to the virus.
“I think it could be a kind of false sense of security for some people,” Rupp said, predicting the holiday would be followed by another surge in weeks, “as people continued to travel, meetings were held with the immediate family.”
Experts are worried about how people might interpret the situation after a long weekend, especially if it takes a few weeks for Thanksgiving exposures to appear in the test data.
Cities and states typically use hospital and intensive care numbers that lag behind the reporting of viral cases to determine when to increase or alleviate public health restrictions and recommendations. But the public is more likely to investigate test numbers or case numbers that could be misleading, Wen said, and waiting to overload hospitals is risky.
“Where we are now is a completely unsustainable place. I think it’s extremely frustrating for people in healthcare to see our calls ignored, ”Wen said. “And the level of alert we have is not reflected in the behavior of individuals.”
Associated Press writers Desiree Mathurin (Bay Shore, NY) and Claudia Lauer (Philadelphia) contributed to this report.