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Nationwide Delays in COVID-19 Test Results

August 26, 2020

By: Lindsay Burrows

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, many have voluntarily opted to undergo coronavirus testing while others have been required to undergo testing for employment reasons. With recent coronavirus hotspots emerging in certain well-travelled states, there has been an unprecedented rate in testing, which has led to the backlog in test results. 

Many states are offering public tests through the Department of Health, which are administered at various community centers. Public tests are free of charge and are mainly available to individuals of all ages who are symptomatic and asymptomatic. However, private tests are typically limited to individuals 18 years or older that are experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus and administered at a cost by local urgent care centers and pharmacies such as Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart. Additionally, some laboratories offering self-administered testing kits that can be performed at home and mailed back to the laboratory for results. 

Testing centers partner with labs in and out of state to obtain results from the COVID-19 tests and advise patients that results will be provided anywhere from 2 to 7 business days. Private testing centers have marketed shorter test result turnaround times, as they have opted to use larger diagnostic testing companies, such as Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp. Yet, there have been instances where patients did not receive test results within two weeks of the testing timeframe.

Considering the current surge in COVID-19 cases, most labs have simply been unable to meet the demand for results and have, in turn, been unable to meet designated timeframes. With the high volume of patients seeking COVID-19 test results and the limited capacity of local and out-of-state laboratories, there have been extensive delays for test results. The backlog in results has also been due to a shortage of equipment and supplies, including chemicals used to detect whether the coronavirus is present in a patient’s test sample.

States with increased cases are experiencing the greatest backlogs in test results. Diagnostic companies and labs have even told state officials that they were at capacity and would no longer be able to accommodate tests. Consequently, states have shut down testing centers due to the surge in demand. 

Major delays in COVID-19 test results not only renders COVID-19 testing useless, it essentially places the nation in the same position as a failure to actually administer COVID-19 tests. In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the country failed to implement widespread testing across states, which led to the limited detection of COVID-19 cases, along with the inability to effectively conduct community-based surveillance to track and detect COVID-19 hot spots. As a result, the nation had a slow response to this massive public health threat, which, in turn, led to increased COVID-19 cases. 

While there are many factors that attributed to the lack of testing at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, guidance materials published by the federal government may have slowed the nation’s response. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published guidance suggesting that emergency use authorizations were required for new COVID-19 laboratory-developed tests. The FDA’s guidance led to limited availability of testing and may have resulted in the initial delay in implementation of coronavirus testing. 

The current delays in COVID-19 test results essentially have the same effect as a failure to test during the earlier stages of this pandemic. The delays have also made it difficult for state officials to implement reopening plans, as states are unable to obtain accurate information regarding test results. Additionally, delays in test results have impacted individuals who require negative COVID-19 test results to return to work or for visitors to return to their home country from travel to the United States. 

In light of the delay in test results, many individuals have decided to take additional COVID-19 tests at different testing centers in hopes of obtaining results sooner. The administration of two tests for one patient may result in the recordation of duplicate results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance on how to report COVID-19 laboratory data on August 7th, 2020. The CDC’s guidance advises clinicians who receive COVID-19 test results from duplicate specimens collected in the same manner and tested with different methods or in different laboratories not to report both results. The reporting of both results may skew the number of active coronavirus cases or positive test results, which could potentially correlate with the projected rise in reported cases.

Timely, accurate test results play a crucial role in preventing community-spread and controlling the risk of spread. Over the past week, six states agreed to work with the Rockefeller Foundation and two manufacturers of rapid tests to buy 3 million tests to reduce the turnaround time for coronavirus test results. With the continued emergence of coronavirus cases and a lack of COVID-19 test results data, states are forced to come up with creative solutions to remedy the backlog in test results.