Tennessee met COVID-19 testing benchmarks, but Alabama and Georgia did not

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Arthur Rounsaville leans against a support beam at the entrance of Mary Walker Towers after being tested for the coronavirus on Monday, May 18, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Testing was made available to Mary Walker tower residents inside of the building Monday.

Tennessee is one of 10 states to reach a benchmark for COVID-19 testing set by Harvard researchers, who earlier this month estimated that the state needed to perform about 3,266 tests daily by May 15 to properly track and contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia, which has a more severe outbreak and larger population, needed to average 25,979 tests per day, and Alabama 8,817 tests per day, according to estimates from the Harvard Global Health Institute. Neither Georgia nor Alabama met those thresholds.

In the past seven days Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama have averaged 9,059, 15,375 and 4,133 tests per day, respectively.

Knowing who's infected, isolating those people and identifying people they've contacted so those people can be tested, too, are key to containing the virus.

Harvard's estimates were based on the COVID-19 outbreak in each state at the time and don't account for businesses reopening. The researchers acknowledged that with relaxed social distancing, new cases could grow, as would a greater need for more testing and contact tracing.

Dean Flener, spokesman for the state's unified COVID-19 response group, said in an email that the state's "interest remains high" in testing Tennesseans for COVID-19. In addition to the Harvard benchmark, Tennessee is meeting federal testing goals.

"From a national perspective, Tennessee has exceeded the federal benchmark indicating states should be able to test at least 2 percent of their populations monthly, in order to make informed decisions regarding re-starting and re-opening their economies," Flener said.

Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said during a press conference on Monday that as people begin to move around more, if they don't practice social distancing, masking and proper hand hygiene, they could fuel new cases.

"I don't want to say I expect it. I'm hoping that we don't see that. I hope our community practices as safely as we can these steps to try and reopen," Barnes said.

As of May 17, Hamilton County had performed 8,899 COVID-19 tests, or one for every 42 Hamilton County residents.

Barnes said that the public's interest in testing hasn't waned locally. The county consistently reaches and sometimes exceeds its daily capacity of 125 tests at the drive-thru testing site on Bonnyshire Drive, and there are also numerous other providers and sites testing residents in the county.

"People are very interested still - they're very engaged," she said.

At the Georgia Department of Public Health, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email that Georgia has ramped up its testing capacity over the past few weeks and now has more than 100 state-run test sites around the state.

"As long as we are continuing to test, we will need more testing supplies/funding," Nydam said.

States should soon see their cut of $11 billion Congress authorized under the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, signed into law in April, to expand overall COVID-19 testing in states, localities, territories, and tribes.

Tennessee will receive more than $155 million in federal funding to boost the state's diagnostic testing efforts for the novel coronavirus, according to a tweet from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander last week.

Flener said in an email that the state will be able to use the funding provided in the act to expand COVID-19 testing in Tennessee according to the act's guidelines, which include the procurement of testing supplies and the personal protective gear needed for administering the tests.

The program, as with many federal assistance programs, will reimburse qualifying entities for costs associated with emergency measures to address the response.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.