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Surging COVID-19 outbreaks in several states are straining testing capacity across the country as people wait several days or even weeks to get their results back, causing another setback to the U.S. response to the months-long pandemic.
Lengthy turnaround times are undermining the fight against the coronavirus, experts say, making efforts to trace contacts of confirmed cases almost pointless. That, in turn, potentially leads to more infections that threaten to strain testing capacity further.
“The concern is it’s just starting to spiral out of control,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
While public health officials say people should be self-isolating while they wait for their test results, there’s little data to indicate how often that’s happening. Longer turnaround times run the risk of making it less likely someone will self-isolate, especially if they’re not experiencing any symptoms.
“It really undermines our infection control,” Plescia said. “Somebody who has COVID but has less typical symptoms or doesn’t feel that bad, they may feel like it’s probably not COVID, and they’ll be going out in public. And if it turns out they really do have COVID, they could have infected significant numbers of people.”
Large outbreaks in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Georgia, have overwhelmed private labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, leading to slower turnaround times. Some states with smaller case numbers are even seeing delays.
While commercial labs have significantly increased the capacity for testing since the early days of the pandemic, there is still not enough to handle the increased demand.
Congress has appropriated $25 billion to improve testing and contact tracing, but none of that has gone to commercial labs that are bearing the brunt of testing.
“It’s the demand that’s changed very, very significantly,” said a spokesperson for the American Clinical Lab Association, which represents clinical laboratories like Quest and LabCorp.
“Labs across the board are seeing significantly increased testing demand and constraints in the availability of supplies and equipment.”
Quest Diagnostics, the largest lab in the U.S., says the turnaround time for “priority patients” — symptomatic health care workers and hospitalized patients — is about two days. The turnaround time for everyone else is more than seven days or up to two weeks.
LabCorp on Monday said the average turnaround time is now between three and five days, though some people have waited longer for their results.
“The value of a test that comes back even five days later is very little,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration.
“People are most infectious both about the two days before they get sick, and maybe three or four days after they get sick. So if you’re telling someone they were infected five days after…