Testing problems have been the bane of the US Coronavirus response since the virus became widespread in the country last March. A reprieve of several months while cases plateaued does not seem to have given health authorities enough time to scale up testing to meet the surge in demand as the virus spreads rapidly around the country. Two of the largest medical testing companies in the country say that their increased capacity is not keeping pace with demand, slowing response times to days or as long as a week for many patients.
“We attribute this demand primarily to the rapid, continuing spread of COVID-19 infections across the nation but particularly in the South, Southwest and West regions of the country,” Quest Diagnostics said in a statement, even though the company has almost doubled its capacity since May to 125,000 tests per day.
“Despite that dramatic increase, demand for testing is increasing even faster,” the statement continued. “As a result, our average turnaround time for reporting test results is slightly more than one day for our priority one patients. However, our average turnaround time for all other populations is seven or more days.”
LabCorp also said that its response time was delayed by the number of tests being processed, telling CNBC, “Until recently, we have been able to deliver test results back to patients on average between 1-2 days from the date of specimen pickup, but with significant increases in testing demand and constraints in the availability of supplies and equipment, the average time to deliver results may now be 4-6 days from specimen pickup. For hospitalized patients, the average time for results is faster.”
LabCorp said that it plans to ramp up testing to 150,000 units per day from the current 130,000 by the end of the month.
Data from Johns Hopkins shows that the US has steadily increased testing to more than 700,000 tests per day. At the same time, the positivity rate has increased from 4.4 percent in mid-June to just under nine percent. This indicates that the number of new cases is not just a function of dramatically increasing the number of tests.
There has been debate over the number of tests needed to safely reopen the country. A Kaiser Foundation survey from May showed widespread agreement among health authorities that at least one million tests per day were needed. In April, President Trump said that he thought the country would soon be doing five million tests per day.
The delay in testing makes it difficult to contain the spread of the virus. Quick testing is needed to speed contract tracing of the infected. Long waits for testing are also inconvenient for patients who often need to self-quarantine while waiting on results.
My son exhibited COVID symptoms several weeks ago and our doctor recommended that he be tested. When I say “recommended,” I mean that the doctor refused to see him until he had been tested. It took four days to get the test results back. By the time we got his negative result, his symptoms had long since disappeared. At least we saved our copayment.
There have been other reports of difficulties getting tested. In my area, many people are reporting that testing sites have limited numbers of tests and often run out quickly.
Accuracy of the tests is still in question as well. COVID tests have been demonstrated to give both false positives and false negatives. As a result, Penn Medicine advises that patients “should be without symptoms for 72 hours before ending self-quarantine” regardless of whether their test result is positive or negative.
The testing problems make it impossible to tell exactly how bad the pandemic is in the US, but we do know that the situation is not good. New cases in the US are increasing at the rate of about 60,000 per day and the seven-day moving average for deaths is trending upwards. Unfortunately too many in the US still don’t take the pandemic seriously. As a result, we are in for difficult times ahead.
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