WASHINGTON – Laboratories across the U.S. are buckling under a surge of coronavirus tests, creating long processing delays that experts say are actually undercutting the pandemic response.
With the U.S. tally of infections at 3.9 million Wednesday and new cases surging, the bottlenecks are creating problems for workers kept off the job while awaiting results, nursing homes struggling to keep the virus out and for the labs themselves, dealing with a crushing workload.
Some labs are taking weeks to return COVID-19 results, exacerbating fears that asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus if they don't isolate while they wait.
“There's been this obsession with, 'How many tests are we doing per day?'” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The question is how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is promptly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned.”
Frieden and other public health experts have called on states to publicly report testing turnaround times, calling it an essential metric to measure progress against the virus.
The testing lags in the U.S. come as the number of people confirmed to be infected globally passed a staggering 15 million on Wednesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. leads the world in cases as well as deaths, which stand at more than 142,000 nationwide. New York, once by far the U.S. leader in infections, has been surpassed by California.
Guidelines issued by the CDC recommend that states lifting virus restrictions have testing turnaround time under four days. The agency recently issued new recommendations against retesting most COVID-19 patients to confirm they've recovered.
“It's clogging up the system,” Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant health secretary, told reporters last week.
Zachrey Warner knows it all too well.
The 30-year-old waiter from Columbus, Ohio, was sent home from work on July 5 with a high fever a few days after he began feeling ill. He went for a test five days later at the request of his employer.
Almost two weeks and one missed pay period later, he finally got his answer on Wednesday: negative.
It was “frustrating that I've missed so much work due to testing taking forever,” Warner said. “It is what it is ... (but) I'm glad I'm negative and happy to be able to get back to work this week.”
Beyond the economic hurt the testing lags can cause, they pose major health risks, too.
In Florida, as the state confirmed 9,785 new cases Wednesday and the death toll rose to nearly 5,500, nursing homes have been under an order to test all employees every two weeks. But long delays for results have some questioning the point.
Jay Solomon, CEO of Aviva in Sarasota, a senior community with a nursing home and assisted living facility, said results were taking up to 10 days to come back.
“It's almost like, what are we accomplishing in that time?” Solomon said. “If that person is not quarantined in that 7-10 days, are they spreading without realizing it?”
Test results that come back after two or three days are nearly worthless, many health experts say, because by then the window for tracing the persons' contacts to prevent additional infections has essentially closed.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University said it's reasonable to tell people awaiting test results to isolate for 24 hours, but the delays have been unacceptable.
The U.S. is testing over 700,000 people per day, up from less than 100,000 in March.