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RI pushes back on NYT claiming state is ‘far below’ recommended testing levels

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island public health officials are pushing back on a New York Times analysis that suggests the state has recently fallen far below recommended testing levels, claiming the newspaper isn’t accounting for a large portion of the state’s daily testing.

The Times on Friday reported where each state stands in terms of testing based on a target developed by researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute. The report shows 34 states “are far below the target,” including Rhode Island, listed at just 48% of the target rate.

But state health officials argue the analysis – which is based on a moving average of tests per capita over the most recent week – is flawed because it excludes a significant portion of the tests actually being done in Rhode Island.

The R.I. Health Department this week started differentiating between the 274,890 tests it has administered since March 1 and the 165,137 individuals who have received a test during that time. The gap is largely due to surveillance testing of high-risk populations and workers – such as nursing home residents and hospital workers – who get tested multiple times, regardless of symptoms.

As a result, total testing is rising at a significantly faster clip than additional residents getting tested for the first time, a phenomenon Target 12 first reported on Wednesday.

The Times – basing its analysis on data compiled by the influential COVID Tracking Project – used the smaller number, which Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said makes it appear the state is testing less than other states which don’t report their own gaps between people tested and overall testing.

The hodgepodge of different reporting standards across jurisdictions has made it challenging to know where each state stands compared to others, he added. Federal guidelines on how to report health metrics are scant, leaving much of the nationwide collection of data to independent organizations, such as The COVID Tracking Project.

“The COVID Tracking Project does comparisons between states using the numbers those states make publicly available,” Wendelken said. “Most states are only making available the number of tests run, and not the number of individual people tested. Because Rhode Island makes both numbers available, the COVID Tracking Project opted to use our ‘people tested’ number, which creates apples-to-oranges comparisons.”

Rhode Island health officials have been in discussions with The COVID Tracking Project, which told the state earlier this week it is working to update its public-facing data to show the difference between tests vs. people tested, according to correspondences shared with Target 12.

According to to that correspondence, currently 14 states only report the number of people tested, 24 report only in total tests and specimens, eight report both — now including Rhode Island — and for 10 others it’s not clear how the numbers break down.

The change in reporting also moved Rhode Island down the state-by-state list of testing efforts kept by Johns Hopkins University. Rhode Island for months has led the nation as No. 1 in terms of cumulative testing per capita, but has slipped to No. 7 since earlier this week when it started to differentiate between newly tested individuals and retested individuals.

Johns Hopkins also uses The COVID Tracking Project as its source.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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