- As demand for COVID-19 testing increases, people are reporting longer and longer wait times for results.
- Wait times have increased in many cities from several days to several weeks.
- Experts contend that testing remains an essential part of the effort to understand and control COVID-19 hot spots.
- While people are waiting for results, they should postpone any plans that involve close contact with other people and practice physical distancing and masking.
- California has recently set guidelines that prioritize testing based on a person’s level of exposure to the virus.
The University of Louisville Hospital has three machines that can deliver COVID-19 tests in about 20 minutes.
They’ve had them since April. But they’ve yet to be used.
The cartridges the machine needs to process tests have been on back order for months, likely going first to bigger states with larger upticks in the virus, says Dr. Forest Arnold, an epidemiologist at the hospital and associate professor of medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
Meanwhile, the wait for Kentuckians to receive COVID-19 test results has climbed back up toward where it was when testing was first rolled out.
“We do have delays,” Arnold told Healthline. “Like a lot of places in the country, in the beginning it took a long time to get a result — a week or two — and then got things under control.”
Things are still largely under control at hospitals, which have their own labs.
But as other labs have gotten overwhelmed with the average resident who wants to get a test at, say, a drive-thru testing center, people are having to wait for their results.
In Kentucky, that wait might be 4 days or a week, Arnold says.
The wait appears to have grown in many other states and cities as well. In some places, there have been reports of people waiting more than 3 weeks.
Those delays — and the period of uncertainty they cause — have potential implications for stopping and tracking the spread of the virus. As experts warned at the start of the crisis, lack of or delayed testing makes the virus harder to chase and leaves health officials a step behind it.
But it’s still worth getting a test, experts say, even if you have to delay some plans and be extra careful while you’re waiting for those results.
It’s not ideal, but a delayed test result is better than no test, they say.
In theory, if you don’t have any symptoms, you could just follow the guidelines by wearing a mask and physical distancing, whether or not you got a test.
But there are some people who just won’t follow those guidelines unless they absolutely have to.
And there are scenarios when it might not be possible to follow them all the time, such as at home with your family. A timely positive result might allow you to take extra precautions to avoid family members and cause them to get tested too.
“Where the delayed testing is really problematic is if people aren’t quarantined and aren’t using universal masking and social distancing,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in New York.
That can be especially problematic in regions where people aren’t as adherent to the guidelines.
In Kentucky, Arnold said, “We’re just doing an OK job in wearing masks in public.”
“The impact of not having the answers is people may potentially have COVID and go out,” he said.
There’s another altruistic reason beyond not wanting to potentially spread the virus too.
“Testing is still really important. We want to get a sense of magnitude of the problem,” Russo said.
“If you suspect you might have COVID-19 or been in contact with someone who does, that test — negative or positive — can further the understanding of the virus’s spread in your community,” he said.
How to wait safely
Say you don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19 but took the test out of an abundance of caution because you were around someone who was found to have an infection.
You’ve been quarantining at home, going beyond your usual level of caution, because you’re more worried you might have an infection.
You’ve gone 3 days waiting in this “isolation jail” for results, and you’re concerned the wait could be around a week.
Is there anything beyond the usual safety measures you should take?
One main thing, Arnold says, is to postpone plans.
“Now that quarantine is over [in Kentucky], people are making appointments and plans for social engagements,” he said.
But if you’re waiting for test results, he says just wait a bit longer before seeing friends or going to that appointment.
“Those are the kind of things they should wait a week for… anything that’s not necessary,” Arnold said.
Beyond that, the usual guidelines apply.
“Even when you get out of isolation, still do the distancing and masking,” Russo noted.
A widespread but varied problem
The length of delays has varied, even in the same city.
In San Francisco, for example, some clinics were issuing results within 24 hours last week, while others were taking up to 10 business days.
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and her family got tested at one clinic and waited a week without getting results, then got tested at another and got results the same day.
She, her husband, and one of their children had it.
When the initial results came the next day, they learned only the child had an infection — meaning faster results might have helped them try to keep that child from spreading it.
The reason for the delays appears to be, simply, more tests.
“Due to extremely high demand, our laboratory partners are backlogged. Please allow 6 to 10 days for results,” says the website for CVS Pharmacy’s retail clinic.
In a statement July 6, Quest Diagnostics, one of the main lab companies processing the tests, said “demand has continued to rise nationwide, particularly in the South, Southwest, and West regions of the country, outpacing our capacity.”
Turnaround time for people not in hospitals had grown from 3 to 5 days to 4 to 6 days in a week. A week later, that average turnaround time has now grown to 7 days or more, according to a company statement on Monday.
Quest also cited issues with getting tests platforms and reagents, which are used in the analysis of samples, as limiting their ability to add capacity to meet the growing demand.
Waiting for solutions
Just as increasing the number of tests available was key at the start of the pandemic, increasing the capacity to run more tests may be key now. Quest said that by the end of the month it expects to add capacity to do 20 percent more diagnostic tests a day.
In the meantime, to work around delays in results, California health officials rolled out a triage system Tuesday.
It would prioritize people hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and those who have been in contact with people who have had positive results.
Next up are others experiencing symptoms and people who work or live in places like nursing homes, jails, or homeless shelters.
Then, essential workers, such as those in grocery stores, public transportation, manufacturing, education, etc. Then everyone else.
But Bottoms’ situation highlights a potential solution that still largely remains on the sidelines: rapid testing that can deliver a result in hours or minutes.
When that testing could be more widely available, though, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the rapid-testing machines at University of Louisville Hospital still sit unused. There’s no timeline yet for bringing them online.
“If you had asked me back in April whether we’d be using them by July, I’d have said sure,” Arnold said.
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