50 policies, 1 pandemic, 500,000 deaths: Associations between state-level COVID-19 testing recommendations, tests per capita, undercounted deaths, vaccination policies, and doses per capita in the United States

medRxiv. 2021 Feb 26;2020.09.04.20188326. doi: 10.1101/2020.09.04.20188326. Preprint


Background: State health departments have been responsible for prioritizing and allocating SARS-CoV-2 tests and vaccines. Testing and vaccination recommendations in the United States varied by state and over time, as did vaccine rollouts, COVID-19 cases, and estimates of excess mortality.

Methods: We compiled data about COVID-19 testing, cases, and deaths, and excess pneumonia + influenza + COVID-19 deaths to assess relationships between testing recommendations, per capita tests performed, epidemic intensity, and excess mortality during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. We compiled further data about state-level SARS-CoV-2 vaccination policies and doses administered during the early months of the vaccine rollout.

Results: As of July 2020, 16 states recommended testing asymptomatic members of the general public. The rate of COVID-19 tests reported in each state correlated with more inclusive testing recommendations and with higher epidemic intensity. Higher per capita testing was associated with more complete reporting of COVID-19 deaths, which is a fundamental requirement for analyzing the pandemic. Testing per capita during the first three months was associated with vaccination per capita in the first three months of rollout. Per capita vaccine doses in each state were not associated with adherence to national guidelines.

Conclusions: Reported deaths due to COVID-19 likely represent an undercount of the true burden of the pandemic. States that struggled with testing rollout have also frequently struggled with vaccine rollout. Coordinated, consistent guidelines for COVID-19 testing and vaccine administration should be a high priority for state and national health systems.

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