As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, there has begun to be some discussion about when, and how, to begin relaxing the restrictions we’re living under. But we’re missing a major piece of the puzzle, one that is essential in knowing how to do so without risking a new spike in cases.

We don’t yet know how widespread the virus actually is.

Iowa has more than 1,700 cases confirmed. Everyone acknowledges the number is almost certainly far higher, but there’s little agreement on just how much higher. Truth be told, there’s little to base most guesses on.

Johns Hopkins University has done perhaps the best job of corralling the available data and putting it in usable, understandable forms. The service they have done in helping professionals and laymen alike in understanding the situation has been invaluable.

On Monday, the Johns Hopkins COVID dashboard had a new element: the number of people tested in the United States. Nationally the figure was a bit higher than 2.8 million.

In Iowa, the figure was a bit more than 18,000. That’s less than the population of Ottumwa, spread out across the entire state. There’s a slight variation in the state’s count, but it’s still within a few hundred. That’s simply not enough.

There are hopeful signs emerging from the data. The efforts to limit contact and thus deprive the virus of the opportunity to spread are paying off.

Most of the hardest-hit parts of the country are showing signs of a plateau in new cases. Some are showing clear declines. For many others, including Iowa, it’s simply too soon to say.

The road back is not a straight line. There will be setbacks. There will be flare-ups and new outbreaks that we will again need to contain.

Those, and the attendant disruptions, become more likely if we don’t have a clear picture of the situation before we act.

As of Monday morning, the state reported no cases in Davis and Monroe counties. Zero. Does anyone really believe that? Even state officials have said people need to assume that the virus is present everywhere, regardless of whether tests confirm it.

We’re making decisions on such information? We wouldn’t argue if someone said Linn or Johnson counties were being hit harder than Davis or Monroe. That’s evident.

Zero cases? That beggars common sense. Would you stake your health on that being right? What about your family’s health?

We need much more testing. Yes, that will mean a significant increase in the number of confirmed cases as people with very mild symptoms, perhaps none at all, receive a surprise. It will also mean a better picture of the situation, one that doesn’t depend on whether someone feels sick enough to go to the hospital or whether that hospital can even get a test performed.

We want things to open back up, just the same as you. We can’t wait to cover that process. But we also believe the state can ill afford to take those steps on the basis of a guess — even an educated one — and right now that’s all they have.

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