The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises states to have test availability be widespread as to produce 10% or less positivity rate for 14 days before reopening. (Photo Courtesy/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

In the eyes of the World Health Organization, Georgia’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was too high for it to completely reopen.

On May 12, the WHO advised governments that, before reopening, positivity rates in COVID-19 testing should remain at 5% or lower for at least 14 days, according to John Hopkins University.

What is positivity rate?

COVID-19 test positivity rate is the percentage of tests that come back positive out of the total number of tests given. Positivity rate is important in analyzing COVID-19 data because it shows the proportion of people who got tested who have the disease. Two states can have the same number of reported cases, but if one is doing double the testing, its outbreak is probably much less serious — positivity rate lets you compare between the two.

If the positivity rate is rising, that means the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is increasing faster, which suggests that an increase in reported cases likely cannot be fully explained by an increase in testing. President Donald Trump has suggested that an increase in testing is the reason for the country’s increase in COVID-19 cases, according to CNBC.

Johns Hopkins’ 5% positivity rate goal would mean that, out of all tests conducted over a 14-day period, only 5% would come back positive for the disease.

Georgia’s positivity rate was 16% on June 17, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Since it began collecting data on Feb. 1, Georgia’s average positivity rate is 10.3%.

“If a positivity rate is too high, that may indicate that the state is only testing the sickest patients who seek medical attention, and is not casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities,” according to John Hopkins’ website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, recommends a three phase reopening for state governments. In phase three, test availability should be widespread as to produce 10% or less positivity rate for 14 days before reopening.

A low rate of positivity could be seen as a sign that a state has sufficient testing capacity and is “testing enough of its population to make informed decisions about reopening,” according to Johns Hopkins.

The country’s test positivity rate increased from March to April. The U.S. did almost 25 times as many tests on April 15 as on March 15, but both the daily positive rate and the overall positive rate went up in that month, according to The Atlantic.

There are 33 states with above a 5% positivity rate, according to John Hopkins. Regionally, the South had a positivity rate of 13% over the past seven days, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Nationwide, there was a 9.2% positivity rate during the week of July 6, according to the CDC.

The ‘red zone’

A private document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force also suggests that “more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.” The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

The document says that 18 states are in the “red zone” for coronavirus cases, meaning that there are more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in a population. Eleven states are in the red zone for test positivity, which means more than 10% of COVID-19 test results come back positive. Georgia is in the red zone for both categories.

“Disease trends are moving in the wrong direction in Georgia with record numbers of new cases occurring in urban, suburban and rural areas,” according to the report. “Test positivity continues to increase. The number of tests has increased, but more testing is needed.”

When the report was published on July 14, Athens-Clarke County was in the red zone, meaning that in the previous week new cases were above 100 per 100,000 and the positivity rate was above 10%.

Recommendations for county governments in the red zone include closing bars and gyms, creating outdoor dining opportunities with pedestrian areas and ensuring that all business retailers require masks.

It also recommends that local jurisdictions should be able to implement more restrictive policies and that cloth face coverings be mandated outside of the home. Gov. Brian Kemp specifically blocked local governments from mandating the use of masks and sued the city of Atlanta over the issue on July 16.

For citizens of counties in the red zone, the report recommends that masks are worn “at all times outside the home,” gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer, people stop going to bars and gyms, people use take out or eat outdoors socially distanced and people reduce public interactions and activities to 25% of their normal activity.

In Georgia, Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties had the highest number of new cases over the past three weeks, Kemp said in a July 17 press conference.

Stroud Payne contributed to this report.

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