How much testing needs to happen for NY to reopen?

A woman receives a COVID-19 test at the recently opened COVID-19 community testing site at NYC Health + Hospitals/ Gotham Health in Morrisania, Bronx.
A woman receives a COVID-19 test at the recently opened COVID-19 community testing site at NYC Health + Hospitals/ Gotham Health in Morrisania, Bronx.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
A woman receives a COVID-19 test at the recently opened COVID-19 community testing site at NYC Health + Hospitals/ Gotham Health in Morrisania, Bronx.

How much testing needs to happen for NY to reopen?

No one knows for sure.
April 27, 2020

If there’s one thing New York needs before it can reopen nonessential businesses, it’s widespread testing for COVID-19. Everyone knows that, but no one knows exactly how many tests the state would need to conduct to sufficiently contain the virus.

In South Korea, mass testing allowed the country to suppress its COVID-19 outbreak without having to impose strict lockdown measures. By testing every possible COVID-19 patient, including tracing the social contacts of anyone who tests positive, and quarantining any possible case, South Korea has been able to keep many more businesses open. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been shying away from saying how many tests New York state should be conducting each day, but he has continued to emphasize the need for more testing. “You can double the capacity of all labs in New York state and still not have enough capacity,” Cuomo said during a press briefing on Friday. “You can never do enough testing.” The governor did manage to get President Donald Trump to agree to help double the state’s testing capability from 20,000 to 40,000 tests per day. But that number is determined by the state’s current lab capacity and doesn’t reflect the actual number of tests needed. Cuomo’s administration did not respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, the governor also said that you “can never do enough testing,” at his daily press conference. During a Wednesday appearance on “The Daily Social Distancing Show” – the remote version of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” – Cuomo said that there will never be enough tests. “I don't think you're going to have enough tests anywhere to design the perfect system,” he said. “If you took every machine in the state of New York that does this, and you ran it seven days a week for 24 hours a day, you could get up to about 40,000 tests per day,” he added. “That is the maximum capacity. 

“It sounds like a lot, but it's not when you're talking about 19 million people,” the governor added, referring to the size of New York’s population. 

Despite Cuomo’s continual call for more testing across the state, it’s unclear precisely how much tests need to be performed to ensure that the coronavirus doesn’t spread once social distancing measures are lifted. Public health experts haven’t provided the state with an ideal number of tests it needs to conduct. 

A report from a panel of health experts at Harvard University has revealed that the U.S. will need to administer 5 million tests per day by June, ramping up to 20 million tests per day by mid-summer, if it wants to safely reopen anytime soon. 

Currently, New York accounts for around 31 percent of the cases in the United States. Thirty-one percent of 5 million is 1.55 million and 31 percent of 20 million is 6.2 million, so New York’s needed number of daily tests could range from 125 to 600 times the 40,000 per day it’s currently pursuing.

It’s likely that New York’s outsized share of the national caseload will decrease over time, so New York’s testing needs probably wouldn’t be quite this high. But even if New York only needed tests in proportion to its share of the U.S. population, at 5 million national tests per day, New York would require approximately 296,000. At 20 million nationally, New York would need at least 1.2 million per day. 

A separate Harvard report has also suggested that a minimum of 152 tests per 10,000 people needs to be conducted per day starting immediately if the U.S. wants to reopen its economy by mid-May. For New York’s population, that would work out to about 289,000 tests per day, although the actual number would be much higher for New York, as 152 tests per day 10,000 people is a national average, and the hardest-hit state would need more per capita. 

Testing has also become increasingly important as public health experts have raised concerns over a second and much worse wave of outbreaks if the economy reopens but the virus is not sufficiently contained. However, without additional federal funding and an infusion of resources, the state will be unable to equip itself with the testing materials, personal protective equipment and the staff it needs to conduct the massive amount of tests needed to safely reopen. Trump has steadfastly refused to do anything to help states procure testing other than helping New York secure necessary materials from abroad, saying that it’s up to the states to secure their own supplies. The president also refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to take control of production of necessary testing supplies that would allow states to increase their testing abilities, until weeks after requests had been made to do so. The latest federal COVID-19 relief bill contains $25 billion for states to procure tests, but some experts say that is nowhere near enough

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his administration would begin launching self-administered testing at eight different community testing centers. This new system, which is expected to launch in a few days, would allow clinics to administer 20 tests per hour instead of 15. 

De Blasio has been forthright about the city’s need for more testing supplies and has said that without widespread testing capabilities it will be unable to safely reopen. He has estimated that hundreds and thousands of tests would need to be conducted each day for the city to begin lifting restrictions. It is currently conducting 11,000 tests per day. “The numbers I want to get to, certainly begin with many, tens of thousands a day … in a perfect world we’d have hundreds of thousands a day to really suppress this disease,” de Blasio said during a press conference on Thursday. “We’re at least in the gateway, going into May, where we get to 20,000 tests a day, 30,000 tests a day.

And two weeks ago, de Blasio announced that the city will start purchasing 50,000 tests per week from Indiana beginning on Monday, and it will also begin manufacturing 50,000 tests per week in May. While this would help the city make more progress it’s likely that it would still need many more tests.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.