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Michigan's COVID-19 testing lags, even as case numbers soar

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Michigan now has among the most COVID-19 cases in the country. As of Friday, that number was 3,657, with 92 reported deaths.

But the state has tested far fewer people relative to other states with similarly high numbers.

Michigan had processed 13,769 COVID-19 tests as of Friday. By contrast, Massachusetts—which has a similar number of cases—had processed more than 29,000.

Part of the reason is an ongoing, nationwide shortage of test kit materials, and lab capacity for processing those tests.

“Reagents and supplies for performing the tests are also in very short supply globally,” said Dr. Russell Faust, medical director of the Oakland County Health Division.

But, “I honestly have no idea why we’ve had such a deficit of testing available to us here in southeast Michigan, or all of Michigan,” Faust said.

“True surveillance and containment of a disease process, a contagion, requires early testing, widespread, ready availability of testing, early in the process. We have just not had ready availability of the testing. I will say that’s made it impossible to contain transmission.”

Faust said that we will continue to see COVID-19 cases rise exponentially. But it will be difficult to tell whether that reflects continued community spread, or increased testing. And that will make it hard to tell when to ease restrictions like Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay at home order.

“In fact, we just cannot differentiate between finding these positive cases because tests become exponentially more available, or if the actual transmission of the disease is becoming more exponential,” Faust said. “I can’t really distinguish between those two possibilities.”

For the time being, Faust said the appropriate response is to keep people at home as much as possible. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, call your doctor, but don’t go to the emergency room unless you really need emergency care. Above all, take the threat seriously.

“The fatalities that we’ve seen are all the way down to the age of 36,” Faust said. “This is not just an older person’s disease. Anybody can be infected, and it can be fatal.”

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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