Demand for Covid screening was falling as New Jersey rolled out testing, tracing plans

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy this week said the state was on track to test around 20,000 people a day for coronavirus by the end of May, roughly double the number it was testing at the end of April.

Data presented to state health officials, however, showed the numbers going in the opposite direction.

The average number of New Jerseyans being tested each day had fallen by between 800 and 1,200 in the week-and-a-half leading up to May 12, when Murphy announced an ambitious testing and contact tracing program which his administration and public health officials say is central to the state’s economic revival.

Just weeks removed from the pandemic's peak in New Jersey, and even as thousands of residents remain hospitalized with the coronavirus, the Murphy administration attributed the drop to “lower demand for testing rather than lower capacity of tests,” spokesperson Alexandra Altman said in a statement late Thursday.

The declining demand also comes as New Jersey ramps up its testing capacity to a scale Murphy says would allow the state to begin reopening after a monthlong lockdown.

As of May 12, New Jersey was testing around 10,600 residents a day on average, according to a a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company that was prepared for the Murphy administration and obtained by POLITICO. That figure represented a 9 percent decline from the number of tests the state was conducting just 10 days earlier, when the seven-day trailing average had climbed to 11,600.

Community-based testing sites in Bergen and Monmouth counties — which the state recently opened up to asymptomatic residents — repeatedly had “excess capacity” through early May, Altman said. Murphy also noted the excess capacity during his daily briefing on May 8.

Officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have faced similar concerns in recent days. Even as testing capacity swelled, “people aren't coming in, either because they had gotten the message previously that testing wasn't available or for whatever reason,” Jan Malcolm, Minnesota’s health commissioner, told the Star Tribune newspaper. “People aren't availing themselves of the testing capacity that's there. We need to do better.”

Altman said New Jersey’s enhancement of its capacity will allow the “state to make the tests, personal protective equipment and lab resources available to test the populations identified in our testing plan.”

With the exception of New York, no state has been hit harder by coronavirus than New Jersey. Almost 10,000 residents have been killed by Covid-19 since the first case was uncovered by state officials on March 4. At least 142,704 New Jerseyans have been infected by the virus.

The actual number of cases is likely much higher. Both Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli have repeatedly said the state hasn’t had the resources to deploy coronavirus tests on a larger scale. Available swabs and test kits have largely been reserved for symptomatic patients, which has frustrated the ability of health officials to track the pandemic’s spread.

Those supply constraints spilled over into Murphy’s plans for reopening the state’s economy.

While hospital data strongly suggests New Jersey has navigated the worst of the pandemic, administration officials — along with most public health experts — say it would be unsafe for the state’s economy to fully reopen until there’s a robust testing and contact tracing program in place.

On Tuesday, Murphy announced several steps that he said would bring the state closer to the “floor” of 20,000 tests per day.

The state will direct $6 million in federal funding it has received to RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a lab affiliated with Rutgers University, which will allow the lab to invest in materials and staff to process thousands more saliva-based samples each day.

New Jersey will also hire at least one “end to end” testing vendor to supplement local health departments, with plans to deploy mobile testing units to boost scale in several of the state's larger cities. Plans to test each resident and staff member working in New Jersey’s long-term care facilities — outbreaks at which account for more than half the state’s Covid-19 death toll — are also underway.

In late April, after meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Murphy said New Jersey was slated to receive 550,000 new Covid-19 test kits and 750,000 swabs, which the governor said at the time would allow the state to conduct about 20,000 tests per day.

Testing, along with contact tracing and quarantine housing for newly positive patients, will “give everybody watching and everybody out there the confidence that we've got the infrastructure in place, so that as we begin to reopen this state, they know that we're on it,” Murphy said at his May 12 press conference. “We will be guided by data, not by politics. We must, we have no choice.”

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