- Officials say that the number of COVID-19 tests being administered in the United States has dropped dramatically since January.
- According to experts, there are a number of reasons, including declining cases, increased vaccination, and pandemic fatigue.
- They say that people should still get tested even if they’ve been vaccinated, so that they know whether they risk passing the disease to others.
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Even as more people in the United States are getting vaccinated for COVID-19, fewer people are getting tested for the novel coronavirus.
The reason for the drop-off in COVID-19 testing is complicated.
But experts say one thing remains clear: Now is not the time to slack off on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including getting tested if you’ve been exposed to someone who’s sick or you’re feeling ill yourself.
Even as testing capacity has risen significantly, the number of new COVID-19 tests administered has fallen drastically over the past 2 months, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
More than 363 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted since the pandemic began 1 year ago. The number of daily tests first topped 1 million on July 24, and they haven’t fallen below 1 million since Oct. 13.
On Jan. 15, more than 2.3 million COVID-19 tests were administered, the most for any single day.
However, after peaking in January, confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions have been declining. And while testing numbers vary from day to day, the overall trend has been downward.
In January, an average of 1.9 million tests were conducted each day. But that fell to 1.5 million daily tests in February and 1.3 million daily tests in March.
The 30-percent drop-off in COVID-19 testing since January is “primarily because the epidemic in the U.S. is ebbing, with an overall decline of weekly cases by some 80 percent since January,” Dr. Jan Bonhoeffer, an infectious disease expert, pediatrician, and former emergency physician, told Healthline.
“Most individuals are tested because of signs and symptoms of a respiratory tract infection,” said Bonhoeffer. “Wearing masks, regular hand hygiene, and social distancing clearly reduce transmission and have also led to a decline in other seasonal respiratory tract infections, amplifying the decrease.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Healthline that the fall-off in testing may be related to family holiday gatherings with people getting COVID-19 tests before and after interacting at Christmas and New Year’s.
People who’ve been vaccinated also may be less likely to get tested, even though researchers are unsure whether vaccinated individuals can continue to pass the novel coronavirus.
“I suspect that will play an increasing role [in testing trends],” said Benjamin.
With COVID-19 infection, hospitalizations, and death rates declining, perception of the risk of coronavirus infection also may be fading, which in turn can lead to less demand for testing.
“There’s a lot of pandemic fatigue out there,” Benjamin noted.
A person who might’ve rushed to get tested a few months ago if they were in the store with somebody who sneezed might not be so quick to do so now that case rates have fallen, says Ahmad Gaber, chief executive officer of Wellhealth and founder of GoGetTested.
“Many people have been tested multiple times — at least among those who believe in the pandemic,” added Gaber, whose company sets up and operates COVID-19 testing sites for state and local government. “There’s hopefulness now that the vaccines are here along with some complacency that the situation is better.”
The combination of increased vaccination and the population of people who already have immunity due to past COVID-19 infection also could play a role in the decline in testing.
But Bonhoeffer sees that as unlikely.
“The proportion of individuals with immunity against SARS-CoV-2 is probably between 10 and 20 percent at this point,” he said, which is “not enough to explain the decline.”
One thing that probably isn’t causing fewer people to seek COVID-19 tests is cost, since nearly all COVID-19 testing is offered free of charge or paid for via health insurance, adds Gaber.
Regardless of vaccination availability and total number of COVID-19 cases, people who exhibit symptoms consistent with novel coronavirus infection — cough, fever, congestion, fatigue, headache, loss of sense of smell, to name a few — should continue to get tested.
The same is true for those who suspect that they’ve been exposed to someone with the disease, even if they themselves have been vaccinated or previously had COVID-19, experts say.
“Testing is important for two reasons. It warns the individual person, and it provides surveillance that allows us to find out what we can do about the disease from a public health perspective,” explained Gaber.
This is even more crucial with the new, possibly more contagious variants of the coronavirus now spreading rapidly in the United States. “If we don’t have testing, we’re flying blind,” he said.
Testing will also continue to be a vital epidemiological tool, even as the disease goes from uncontrolled community spread to isolated outbreaks.
“Testing is still an indicator of where the disease is and where it is going,” said Benjamin. “We’re just now beginning to get our hands around this outbreak that we’ve been chasing since the beginning, and if we let our guard down now, it will escape us.”