Just five weeks ago, Los Angeles county was conducting more than 350,000 weekly coronavirus tests, including at a massive drive-through site at Dodger Stadium, as health workers raced to contain the worst Covid-19 hotspot in the US.
Now, county officials say testing has nearly collapsed. More than 180 government-supported sites are operating at only a third of their capacity.
“It’s shocking how quickly we’ve gone from moving at 100 miles an hour to about 25,” said Dr Clemens Hong, who leads the county’s testing operation.
After a year of struggling to boost testing, communities across the country are seeing plummeting demand, shuttering testing sites or even trying to return supplies.
The drop in screening comes at a significant moment in the outbreak. Experts are cautiously optimistic that Covid-19 is receding after killing more than 500,000 people in the US but concerned that emerging variants could prolong the epidemic.
“Everyone is hopeful for rapid, widespread vaccinations, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can drop our guard just yet,” said Hong. “We just don’t have enough people who are immune to rule out another surge.”
US testing hit a peak on January 15, when the country was averaging more than 2m tests per day. Since then, the average number of daily tests has fallen more than 28%. The drop mirrors declines across all major virus measures since January, including new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Officials say those encouraging trends, together with harsh winter weather, the end of the holiday travel season, pandemic fatigue and a growing focus on vaccinations are sapping interest in testing.
“When you combine all those together you see this decrease,” said Dr Richard Pescatore of the health department in Delaware, where daily testing has fallen more than 40% since the January peak. “People just aren’t going to go out to testing sites.”
But testing remains important for tracking and containing the outbreak.
LA county is opening more testing options near public transportation, schools and offices to make it more convenient. And officials in Santa Clara county are urging residents to “continue getting tested regularly”, highlighting new mobile testing buses and pop-up sites.
President Joe Biden has promised to revamp the nation’s testing system by investing billions more in supplies and government coordination. But with demand falling fast, the country may soon have a glut of unused supplies.
The US will be able to conduct nearly 1bn monthly tests by June, according to projections from researchers at Arizona State University. That’s more than 25 times the country’s current rate of about 40m tests reported per month.
With more than 150m new vaccine doses due for delivery by late March, testing is likely to fall further as local governments shift staff and resources to giving shots.