South Korea Tested 200,000, the CDC Tested 77 in a Week, and the Utah Jazz Tested 58 Players for COVID-19 in Hours?

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"South Korea has tested 200,000 people for coronavirus, prioritizing the most vulnerable people. The CDC only tested 77 people this week. Yet, the Utah Jazz was able to test all 58 players in a matter of hours."

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On March 12 2020, Twitter user @SawyerHackett tweeted that South Korea had managed to test 200,000 people for novel coronavirus strain COVID-19, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only tested 77 people in a week — adding that all 58 Utah Jazz players managed to secure coronavirus tests with little difficulty:

Hackett said that South Korea not only tested a high volume of citizens, but the country also triaged that testing so those most in need of tests were seen first. By referencing “this week” on a Thursday (March 12 2020), Hackett likely meant the purported 77 CDC tests occurred in the week beginning Monday, March 9 2020. And finally, 58 Utah Jazz players constituted an entire basketball team.

Even just reading the tweet without citations, it was clear Hackett was both referencing myriad levels of scale (a country, a basketball team, the CDC; unspecified time periods), as well as a disparity between at least two countries. In South Korea, he said, a large number of available tests were allocated by need, prioritizing the most medically fragile. In contrast, the claim that all 58 players on the Utah Jazz team received tests in one night versus 77 tests administered by the CDC tests inherently claimed the United States was testing the wealthy or powerful on request, leaving everyday Americans in something of a high-odds, high-stakes lottery.

NBA teams consist of about 15 players in total, and there are 17 on the team’s roster. So where did the figure of 58 people come from? According to the Associated Press, two Utah Jazz players tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12 2020; other team members were tested along with Jazz staff and some reporters who had been covering the team:

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz confirmed [on March 12 2020] that he tested positive for the coronavirus, saying that he is personally dealing with the pandemic that has temporarily shut down the NBA and other major sports leagues.

Later, Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert — the first NBA player to test positive, which prompted the league to suspend the season — also confirmed his status and apologized. “I was careless and make no excuse,” Gobert said in an Instagram post.

Mitchell’s positive test was not known until early [on March 12 2020], the first full day of the NBA’s hiatus. Jazz players, staff and some beat writers covering the team were tested [March 11 2020] in Oklahoma City, where Utah was to play the Thunder in a game that was called off moments before tipoff once word about Gobert’s positive test was received.

Ari Shapiro of NPR spoke with Eric Walden, one of the beat reporters mentioned above. Walden was self-quarantining because of the positive diagnoses of two Utah Jazz players, and Shapiro addressed concerns about test availability for professional athletes versus the general public in a set of questions about the trajectory of testing and quarantine.

Shapiro asked how the Utah Jazz managed to secure “dozens” of COVID-19 tests for the exposed players, staff, and reporters; the specific number was not mentioned:

WALDEN: As I understand it, Rudy Gobert, who was the first to test positive, and Donovan Mitchell, who was the second to test positive, are being kept quarantined in Oklahoma City. The rest of the team is on its way back to Salt Lake City.

SHAPIRO: Do you understand how an NBA team got its hands on dozens of tests very quickly when so many Americans are reporting difficulty getting testing?

WALDEN: It’s my understanding that once a positive test came back for Rudy Gobert, that the Oklahoma Department of Health was then called into the scene to do emergency testing on both the remaining players of the Utah Jazz and their traveling party, which included broadcasters and media, but to do the same for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had concerns about the exposure as well.

Walden said that testing was conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Health, not the Centers for Disease Control. The Daily Beast’s March 12 2020 article “How Did the NBA Push Through 58 Coronavirus Tests When Almost No One Else Can Get Them?” gave a more exact number of tests conducted on those thought to have been potentially exposed by infected players.

It appeared that much of Hackett’s tweet may have been predicated on that article’s first paragraph:

America’s response to a global pandemic has been lackluster, to say the least. Despite the near-constant stream of baffling and misleading utterances spewed by the president, the reality is that the ability to test for the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has paled in comparison to nations like South Korea, which has been examining 20,000 people a day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only managed to run 77 tests from [March 8 2020] to [the morning of March 12 2020], according to Yahoo! News. On [March 11 2020], 2,728 people were tested by all 50 state labs, or an average of 55 people per state.

But when an NBA player began exhibiting symptoms, that figure was surpassed. The state of Oklahoma completed 58 COVID-19 tests within a matter of hours on [March 12 2020], all to ensure that the virus didn’t spread any further than necessary. A powerful, wealthy pro sports league flexed the political capital and financial might required to get government officials to spring into action. The unintentional byproduct, though, is another, equally jarring number: 7,617 people in total have been tested for the virus by state labs as of [March 12 2020], and those 58 tests, or a staggering .8 percent, were conducted on employees of one professional basketball team.

[…]

Here are a few more surprising digits. The 58 tests conducted represented 60 percent of Oklahoma’s peak daily capacity.

Once again, a set of numbers was presented with varying contexts and parameters. They included:

  • 20,000 people examined in South Korea daily at the time of publication;
  • 77 tests conducted by the CDC in a four-day span (March 8 through March 12 2020];
  • 2,728 people tested in labs in 50 states, “or an average of 55 people per state” on March 11 2020;
  • 7,617 people tested in total as of March 12 2020;
  • Of the 7,617 tested in total, nearly one percent of all tests (0.8 percent) were conducted on “employees of one professional basketball team,” i.e., the Utah Jazz

That reporting contextualized the tweet’s claims further; readers might have inferred from this that a total of 77 tests were conducted on the general public as of March 12 2020, but that statistic referred to a subset of tests performed only by the CDC in a period between March 8 and the morning of March 12 2020. The same reporting referenced a total of 2,728 tests conducted in 50 states — 2,728 divided by 50 states equaled 54.56 people per state (rounded up to 55.)

Also in that reporting was a claim that South Korea was “examining” an average of 20,000 people per day — but “testing” was not specified. As the piece was worded, it was possible the average of 20,000 people daily were assessed for COVID-19 exposure or symptoms, and an unknown smaller subset went on to actually be tested.

Regarding testing in the United States, the article referenced a March 12 2020 Yahoo! News item about the source of figures for COVID-19 testing from the CDC. It indicated as of March 12 2020, 1,784 people in total were tested by the CDC, and that on March 8 2020, 1,707 people had been tested in total. Subtracting the 1,784 figure from March 8 2020 from the 1,707 figure from March 12 2020 seemed to support the conclusion the CDC conducted a total of 77 tests “this week” — in other words, between Sunday March 8 and Wednesday March 11 2020, when Redd testified to Congress about the American public health response to the pandemic:

“This is not a problem we can test our way out of,” said Stephen Redd, MD, head of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, in testimony on [March 12 2020]. It was an admission that, in a nation of 320 million, testing every person will be impossible … Redd also revealed in his testimony that the total number of people tested for the coronavirus by the CDC was 1,784. That means that, as of [the morning of March 11 2020], the CDC had tested only 77 people for the coronavirus since [March 8 2020]. According to a CDC spokesman, the number that had been tested as of [March 8 2020] was 1,707.

Per Redd representing the CDC before Congress, 1,787 Americans in total were tested by the CDC since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between the beginning of the week on March 8 2020 and Redd’s testimony, an additional 77 people were tested.

On March 11 2020, The Guardian‘s “Mass testing, alerts and big fines: the strategies used in Asia to slow coronavirus” reported some figures from South Korea:

The reference to religious events was significant. More than 60% of cases in South Korea have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect, in the south-eastern city of Daegu. While the outbreak placed huge strain on the city’s medical services, new infections appeared to slow after health authorities completed Covid-19 tests on 210,000 Shincheonji followers. Identifying so many cases among a single group, and in a relatively confined geographical area, appears to have helped slow the rate of infections.

[…]

[South Korea] is conducting about 15,000 tests a day, free of charge, and has carried out almost 200,000 screenings so far. It has also set up about 50 drive-through testing centres and distributed smartphone alerts about the movements of people who have tested positive.

If both The Guardian and The Daily Beast’s figures were correct, the disparity between 20,000 people examined and 15,000 tested for COVID-19 daily might have been attributable to screening to ensure tests were not wasted on people who were not likely to test positive. For further context, South Korea had a population of about 52 million, versus that of the United States at 327 million; the population of the United States was just over six times as large as that of South Korea.

Hackett’s tweet made several points about COVID-19 testing inside the United States versus other countries:

  • South Korea tested 200,000 people for coronavirus as of March 12 2020, “prioritizing the most vulnerable people”;
  • The CDC tested 77 people during the week of March 8 2020;
  • The Utah Jazz secured tests for 58 players in a matter of hours on March 11 2020.

According to testimony by CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response head Redd, the CDC conducted 1,784 tests for novel coronavirus as of March 8 2020, and a further 77 tests between that date and the morning of March 11 2020 — when Redd testified before Congress about the CDC’s response to the pandemic. As for South Korea, news organizations reported 200,000 total tests conducted,  that a total of 20,000 South Koreans were being “examined” daily, and a total of 15,000 conducted tests daily were reported.

Although the CDC performed just under 1,800 tests in total as of March 11 2020, individual states did the bulk of the testing within the U.S., and in a figure reported by The Daily Beast, just under 2800 people were tested nationally in one day the week of March 8 2020 — averaging 54.56 people tested daily per state. On a broader scale and rounding up, the various articles suggested just under 3,000 people tested daily in the US (population 327 million), and around 15,000 daily in South Korea (population 52 million). Going back to the 55 a day average, 58 people affiliated with the Utah Jazz team were tested in a single day in Oklahoma.

Although the tweet dealt in a number of indirect comparisons, it is largely true in context that South Korea tested people numbering in the hundreds of thousands, whereas the United States was clearly not testing citizens at nearly the same rate. It bears mentioning that the CDC itself was not conducting the bulk of tests, a burden that fell on state health departments — nevertheless, the figure of 77 was accurate. Finally, with tests clearly in short supply, the NBA did somehow secure 58 tests in total for Utah Jazz players, staff, and reporters. The CDC resumed disclosing testing results via its website, and the total number of tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as by states was updated regularly as of March 13 2020. Those figures are available here.

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