STAT-Harris Poll: 1 in 4 Americans were unable to get a Covid-19 test when they wanted one

As the U.S. struggles to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of Americans say they wanted to get tested for the coronavirus but were unable to do so, according to the latest survey from STAT and The Harris Poll.

Specifically, 24% reported that they could not get tested for various reasons – a testing site was not nearby, the wait for a test was too long, transportation to a test site was unavailable, or it was unclear where to go for a test. Some people cited more than one of these hurdles. The issue cited most often — 10% complained of the wait.

At the same time, 31% said they were able to get tested when they sought to do so, according to the online survey, which queried 2,043 people between Feb. 5 and Feb. 7. The rest said they have never wanted to be tested.

The notable percentage of people who ran into difficulties getting tested underscores one of the ongoing challenges that federal and state officials face as the country attempts to contain the coronavirus.

“This has been a bedeviling problem in the U.S. from the get-go,” said Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “But it’s amazing that it’s still so difficult for some people to get tested. And it’s frustrating.”

In fact, the rate at which Covid-19 testing is occurring across the U.S. is spotty, at best. As of last Friday, the number of tests had increased from the previous week in 11 states, but declined in 26 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The testing rate was unchanged for the remaining 14 states.

Have you been unable to get tested for Covid-19 when you wanted to?

Unable to get tested (total)24
Unable, no test site near me8
Unable, wait was too long10
Unable, didn’t have transportation7
Unable, didn’t know where to go8
Able to get tested when wanted31
Have never wanted test45

The problem dates back to the early days of the pandemic, when the Trump administration stumbled in developing and rolling out testing for the new virus. The biggest problem was an insufficient number of tests, as well as different types of tests of varying reliability. For months, people had to wait in long lines for tests, and then often wait up to a week for results.

The location of testing sites was another concern, contributing to inequities in how the pandemic affected people of color. A research letter published last week in JAMA Network, for example, found that “despite programs to promote equity and enhance epidemic control in socioeconomically vulnerable communities, testing resources across Massachusetts have been disproportionately allocated to more affluent communities.”

The poll also found that 49% of Americans have been tested for Covid-19: 19% once; 16% two to four times; and the rest five or more times. Most — 56% — have been tested at a hospital or drive-through site. For the vast majority, or 69%, the test was conducted using a nasal swab.

The most common reason respondents cited for getting tested — at 28% — was that they had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19, while 24% said they had possible symptoms of Covid-19 and 21% were required to get tested by their job or school.

Why did you get tested for Covid-19?

In contact with someone who tested positive28
Had possible symptoms24
Had to for work or school21
Visiting at-risk person19
Attending gathering15
No specific reason17
None of the above16

Meanwhile, 31% of those tested reported that they received a false positive result, which means they tested positive on an initial Covid-19 test but a retest came back negative. And 24% said they had a false negative test, indicating they tested negative initially but a retest came back positive.

Many more people of color than white respondents reported false-positive and false-negative results. One possible explanation is the survey found that Black and Hispanic people were more likely to have been tested 10 or more times, since many have front-line jobs that put them in contact with the public. And those who get tested more often are more likely to get a false result, explained Rob Jekielek, managing director at The Harris Poll.

Also of note: By a 2-to-1 margin, or 41% compared with 20%, respondents believe vaccination, rather than improved testing, is more important for society to return to something resembling normal.

There is an interesting wrinkle, though, with 45% of white respondents looking mostly to vaccination for a return to normal, while only 32% of Black people feel similarly. Looked at another way, 29% of Black respondents indicated they feel that testing is more likely to return society to normal, while just 17% of white people share that view.

“A lot of this has to do with what’s called vaccine hesitancy,” explained Jekielek. “It has to do with history in that community [of being mistreated by the health care establishment]. And so they have the lowest level of confidence in vaccines and the highest level of confidence in the value of testing.”

That hesitancy was highlighted by the poll’s finding that, while interest in being vaccinated has rebounded sharply since the fall, it hasn’t done so as much among Black respondents. Overall, 69% of Americans in the latest poll said they would get a vaccine as so0n as one become available, up from 58% in October and the same as last August. The results track closely for white people, with 71% reporting they would seek a vaccine, up from 59% in October and 70% last August. But among Black respondents, just 56% now said they would get a vaccine as soon as one became available, up from 43% in October but still below the 65% recorded in August.

The poll was weighted based on Census data to the general U.S. adult population. In describing the methodology, the Harris Poll said it adheres to guidelines of the American Association for Public Opinion Research: “Per AAPOR guidelines, we don’t report on a ‘margin of error’ as online surveys are not based on probability samples. For subgroup differences (such as between white Americans vs. Black/African Americans), we conduct statistical significance testing using a Student’s t-test at the 95% confidence level.”

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