‘Testing deserts:’ Which NC counties have done the fewest COVID tests?

Health Watch

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Nine counties in North Carolina averaged fewer than 50 COVID-19 tests per day over the past two weeks.

State leaders, hoping to avoid a Christmastime repeat of the spike in COVID-19 metrics fueled by Thanksgiving gatherings, are pushing for more testing across the state.

More than 6 million tests have been processed by the state since March, but a CBS17.com data analysis finds they aren’t distributed evenly.

“I think it’s very important from a numbers perspective to understand where the testing is not available to people,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International, who called them “testing deserts.”

The state does not release a county breakdown of its exact testing numbers — “We really cannot see, from a public data perspective,” MacDonald said — but they can be estimated for the previous two weeks from the charts on the countywide percent positive section of the Department of Health and Human Services’ data dashboard.

The state does not publish a percent positive for a county that does not record a minimum average of 50 electronically reported tests per day during the preceding two weeks because a number that small does not allow for a reliable calculation of that key metric.

There were nine counties that failed to meet that standard during the reporting period from Dec. 3-15 — Alleghany, Camden, Clay, Gates, Graham, Hyde, Perquimans, Swain and Tyrrell counties. A 10th county, Washington, appeared on the list later Friday.

They share several characteristics in common: They’re located either in the western mountains or near the coast and they each rank among the 13 counties with the smallest populations. And perhaps because their testing figures are so comparatively low, they rank among the 15 counties with the fewest new cases reported during that time period.

Health directors from Swain, Camden, Hyde, Clay and Tyrrell counties did not return messages from CBS17.com seeking answers.

“If you’re sick and you go to a doctor, you can probably get a test, but what about people who are an hour away from their doctor’s office or they’re too sick to get themselves there?” MacDonald said.

CBS17.com estimated the number of tests during that time period from those charts for each of the 22 counties in the viewing area, then used the July 2020 county population estimates from the Office of State Budget and Management to calculate the per capita testing rate for each county.

According to those figures, Granville County had the highest per capita testing, with an estimated 5,250 tests during that time period — or, 8,448 for every 100,000 people in the county. That’s three times as many as in Hoke County, which had 2,760 tests per capita. 

Wake County had the most overall tests, an estimated 65,000, but it also is the second most populous county in the state. The fewest tests appeared to have been done in Northampton County, an estimated 1,165 of them.

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