State health officials can track the exponential growth of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus in New Jersey – more than tripling every three days for the past two weeks, due to both expanding testing and community spread.

What they can’t track, though, is how many people have tested negative – and, by extension, just how many New Jerseyans have been tested in total.

The state Department of Health discloses how many negative test results there have been in the state laboratory, a total of 327 through Sunday, but doesn’t receive those numbers from commercial and hospital-based labs.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the data “is something we all want” but that it’s fair to point out the commercial labs operate at a much bigger scale than the state lab, at this point handling thousands of specimens a day from multiple states in a few labs.

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

“We’ve said this I think from day one: There’s a gap of information and knowledge between what these folks have through the DOH versus hospital systems versus the commercial high-speed labs,” Murphy said. “Our hope is over time … to shrink that gap. How soon we can shrink it, to what level of accuracy, too early to tell. But that is our objective.”

Some states do get that data from private- and hospital-based labs, which at this point are doing the overwhelming majority of tests.

The COVID Tracking Project shows that nationwide, as of early Sunday afternoon, there had been 30,128 positive tests reported – and 186,983 negative ones. That’s a rate of about 14% of tests coming back positive.

In New Jersey, because most negative tests aren’t being counted, it appears as if 85% of tests are coming back positive – 1,914 out of 2,241 through Sunday. That’s not the case. It’s just that there is incomplete data.

There are only three other states in which the number of positive tests on the tracker exceeds the number of negative ones: Delaware, Maryland and Ohio.

Dr. Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist, said commercial labs aren’t required to provide the state negative test results but that some have been willing to do so. She said they’re working on getting it from the others.

“Our priority right now though is to concentrate on the positives and working on those individuals who are positive, health care workers for example are a priority group,” Tan said. “At some point we’ll be able to pull together the data that’s actually going to be meaningful to add to the discussion.”

“Certainly there will be value in taking a look at the overall denominator, both our laboratory as well as the commercial laboratories,” she said. “Just gives us kind of a ballpark of how many people are being tested and the positivity rate. So certainly that would add some value.”

Murphy said the state has pushed for the negative-test data to be shared.

“We are using moral suasion, as well. It’s not like there are a thousand private testers here,” Murphy said. “This is a handful of entities that are either commercial or hospital providers. They know this information is important to us.”

Murphy’s public event on Friday featured executives from two of the three biggest private lab testing companies, LabCorp and BioReference, who discussed their efforts to expand testing in New Jersey and nationally. The topic didn’t come up in the public portion of the event.

In addition to the private lab testing, the state is expanding capacity at its lab. The Department of Health is purchasing high-throughput diagnostic lab equipment, which will allow the state lab to be capable of processing over 1,000 tests per day.

The state is also developing and validating its own specimen collection kits, which would be available to be used by healthcare providers in the state to send samples to any lab that offers testing for COVID-19.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.