Texas testing drops as schools reopen, prepare for football

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Medical personnel administer COVID-19 testing at a drive-through site, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in San Antonio. Coronavirus testing in Texas has dropped significantly, mirroring nationwide trends, just as schools reopen and football teams charge ahead with plans to play. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

SAN ANTONIO – Anyone can get a coronavirus test at the CentroMed clinic in San Antonio, but on a recent day, the drive-thru was empty. Finally two masked people in a maroon SUV pulled straight on through with no wait.

With hundreds of deaths reported each day, students returning to class and football teams charging ahead with plans to play, Texas leaders who grappled with testing shortages for much of the pandemic are now facing the opposite problem: not enough takers.

“We’re not having enough people step forward,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said.

The number of coronavirus tests being done each day in Texas has dropped by the thousands in August, mirroring nationwide trends that has seen daily testing averages in the U.S. fall nearly 9% since the end of July, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The problem is dwindling demand: Testing centers like CentroMed are no longer inundated by long lines that stretch for blocks, or closing hours early because tests run out.

The dropoff comes as the U.S. has surpassed 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and is closing in on 170,000 deaths. It threatens to put the U.S. even further behind other countries that have better managed the pandemic, in part, through more aggressive testing.

The trend worries health experts who fear that Texas risks flying blind into the fall if it doesn't increase testing. Texas embarked on one of the fastest reopenings in the U.S. in May but retreated weeks later in the face of massive outbreaks, ultimately leading Abbott to impose a statewide mask order after previously saying he wouldn't.

At one point, one overwhelmed hospital on the Texas border was airlifting COVID-19 patients hundreds of miles (kilometers) north in search of open beds, and Houston this month began threatening $250 fines for not wearing face coverings in an effort to drive down infection numbers.

In recent weeks, things have improved, including a nearly 40% drop in hospitalizations since July's peak. But deaths remain high, and doctors in some parts still say they're still stretched. Texas is averaging more than 210 reported new deaths a day over the past two weeks, according to The COVID Tracking Project. On Saturday, it reported 238 deaths. Overall, the state has recorded more than 9,800 fatalities.