One can determine the importance of the rate of positive coronavirus tests by clicking three times.

  1. Go to the White House website.
  2. Click the prominent graphic touting the White House guidelines for reopening America.
  3. Click the box labeled “criteria.”

There you’ll read one of the key metrics the White House recommends states use before scaling back efforts to contain the virus: States should see a “downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period,” assuming a flat or increasing volume of tests.

Data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project, which has been tracking tests at the state and national level for months in lieu of real-time information from the federal government, indicates many states aren’t meeting this mark. In 27 states and the District of Columbia, positive-test rates are up from two weeks ago.

Nationally, that’s also true. On June 15, 4.5 percent of tests for the coronavirus completed nationally came back positive. On June 29, the most recent day for which full data is available, the rate was 6.9 percent.

If your sole source of information on coronavirus testing is the president of the United States, however, you would be led to believe the opposite is true.

On Tuesday morning, President Trump retweeted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was touting the expansion of test capacity in the United States — and that “positive rates are down.” Which, of course, they aren’t.

Not only are positive rates not down, there’s been a recent increase in the number of states that are seeing at least 10 percent of tests coming back positive — the upper end of what the World Health Organization originally recommended to contain the spread of the virus.

The WHO later revised its recommendations to suggest governments see at least 14 straight days with positive rates under 5 percent before relaxing containment measures. As of Monday, only 16 states hit that benchmark. Over the past seven days, 20 states have met that measure on average. That’s an improvement over a month ago, when the seven-day average was that 15 states had hit the mark — but it’s still less than half the country.

Granted, it’s not clear what end point McCarthy is using for his evaluation that the rate of positive tests has declined. If he is using a standard that isn’t the one set by the White House — two months, for example — then, yes, the rate of positive tests is down. But that’s unquestionably a deceptive way of presenting the evolution of the pandemic.

You can see for yourself below. Compare current and past levels of cases, tests, positive tests and deaths nationally and by state over whatever period you wish.

Show changes in seven-day average in
over the past 14 days.

Your browser cannot display this graph.

Trump’s retweet of McCarthy isn’t meant to promote McCarthy’s briefing. It’s meant to promote McCarthy’s presentation of the state of the pandemic. The president wants to bolster the idea the pandemic is under better control than what experts (and the data) suggest. It’s a continuation of how the administration has approached the pandemic from the outset.

Trump also meant to reinforce a central argument he has repeatedly offered in defense of his handling of the pandemic. It’s illustrated here by his campaign’s rapid-response Twitter account.

The United States has conducted more tests than any other country. It has also recorded more coronavirus cases, though those two things aren’t linked in the way Trump would suggest. The growth of the rate of positive tests nationally and in most states is a signifier the spread of the virus is again getting worse.

As we’ve reported, if the United States had seen the most tests at the beginning of the pandemic, we probably be in a much better position, including being better able to track and contain emerging outbreaks. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now indicates the spread of the virus is uncontained and uncontainable over the short term.

That’s not what McCarthy’s tweet suggests. Which is why Trump shared it.