Bad News: The Positive Share of COVID-19 Tests Has Passed 5 Percent in the United States

How are the rich countries of Europe and North American doing on the coronavirus? This is surprisingly hard to answer. You can look at cases, but they depend a lot on how much testing you’ve done. What’s more, cases don’t seem to correlate very well with deaths anymore.

So how about deaths? That’s better, but still far from perfect since there’s an increasingly open dispute about what counts as a “COVID-19 death.” Plus, deaths are a lagging indicator, as they’ve always been.

So how about share of positive tests? This is the percentage of all COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and epidemiologists say that it needs to be below 5 percent before you can tentatively say you have things under control. During the initial April outbreak, the positive test rate was as high as 20-25 percent in some countries (it peaked at about 18 percent in the US). Here’s what it looks like today:

Needless to say, this is not a perfect metric either. If you test only people who are already showing symptoms, you’ll have a high rate. If you test everyone in a city, you’ll probably have a low rate. However, most countries are testing at a rate of 1-2 per thousand people, with a few outliers above and below that, which makes the positive test rate a decent look at how things are shaping up.

The chart above shows that a few countries are in terrible shape and should probably be locking down everything in sight. Another group of countries is in OK shape but obviously on the rise. And then there’s good old Germany, with a low positivity rate and a fairly flat curve.

The United States doesn’t look good on this metric. We’ve been on the rise for the past two weeks and we broke the 5 percent barrier a few days ago. Winter is coming.

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