RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Public health experts hope new numbers from the state will help solve one of the lingering problems of the COVID-19 pandemic — those specific testing deserts, where not enough people are getting tested.
The state Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month began releasing testing figures for each county — not just the state as a whole.
“We’re at a stage in the pandemic where understanding transmission in our localized communities is very, very important,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International.
DHHS is posting the rolling two-week total of tests for each county, along with its percent positive.
Hayley Young, the data office director at DHHS, said the reason it took so long to make those numbers available publicly had to do with each county’s percent positive.
She said that number previously was based on each day’s count of tests — and the state’s sparsely populated counties sometimes didn’t do enough of them to be statistically reliable.
“So we have been working hard to come up with a metric that would allow people to really have a better understanding of what the trends looked like,” she said.
She said basing them instead on two weeks’ worth of tests “means is you just have higher testing volumes, and you can really get a better idea of what those trends — you know, increasing, decreasing, whatever the case may be — what that looks like over time.”
Now that we have those numbers, what should we look for?
MacDonald says those deserts tend to be places where testing levels are flat but the percent positive is high.
“If I’m seeing stagnant testing as in the same numbers every week, week over week, and the high percent positive consistent, that means that access to testing is very limited,” she said.
It looks like Orange County is doing the best.
Over the past two weeks, that county has done the second-highest number of tests per capita at 1,264 for every 10,000 people. And only 3.1 percent of those tests have come back positive — best in the state.
At the other end of the spectrum, many of the worst spots are in the western mountains. Those areas are doing some of the least testing per capita, have the highest percent positive — or both.
In Clay County, for example, more than 30 percent of tests were positive. Swain County, meanwhile, did just 225 tests for every 10,000 people — the fewest in the state, and nearly six times fewer than Orange County.
MacDonald says the issue appears to be access to tests.
“In rural areas, it can be particularly hard to set up these sites where people can access them, and in ways they can access them,” MacDonald said.
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.