As COVID-19 testing soars, Americans are forced to wait longer for results
Elliot Truslow went to a CVS drugstore in Tucson, Ariz., to get tested for the coronavirus on June 15. The drive-thru nasal swab test took less than 15 minutes.
More than 22 days later, the University of Arizona graduate student was still waiting for the results.
Truslow was initially told it would take two to four days. Then CVS said five or six days. On the sixth day, the pharmacy extended its estimate to 10 days.
“This is outrageous,” said Truslow, 30, who has been quarantining at home since attending a large rally on June 6 in support of Black Lives Matter. Truslow has never had any symptoms of COVID-19. At this point, the test findings hardly matter anymore.
Truslow’s experience is an extreme example of the growing — and often excruciating — waits that accompany a coronavirus test in the United States.
While hospital patients can get their results within a day, people tested at urgent care centers, community health centers, pharmacies and government-run drive-thru or walk-up sites are often waiting a week or more. In the spring, wait times were generally three or four days.
The delays mean patients and their physicians lack the information necessary to know whether to change their behavior. Health experts advise people to act as if they have COVID-19 while they’re waiting — meaning they should self-quarantine and limit their exposure to others. But they acknowledge that the longer the wait, the more difficult it is for people to comply.
“We’ve been testing for months now in America,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who waited eight days for her own results. (She was positive.) “The fact that we can’t quickly get results back so that other people are not unintentionally exposed is the reason we are continuing in this spiral with COVID-19.”
The slow turnaround for results is having repercussions throughout American life. It’s keeping some professional baseball teams from training for their pandemic-shortened season. It threatens to delay students’ return to school campuses this fall.
The lag times could even foil Hawaii’s plan to welcome more tourists, since the state plans to let visitors skip its mandatory 14-day quarantine if they can show they tested negative within three days of arriving on the islands.
More than 200 researchers worldwide sign an open letter saying current guidance ignores evidence that the coronavirus readily spreads on microscopic particles known as aerosols that can hang in the air for long periods and float dozens of feet.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said the long waits spell trouble for individuals and complicate the national response to the pandemic.
“It defeats the usefulness of the test,” he said. “We need to find a way to make testing more robust, so people can function and know if they can resume normal activities or go back to work.”
The problem is that labs running the tests are overwhelmed as demand has soared in the past month.
“We recognize that these test results contain actionable information necessary to guide treatment and inform public health efforts,” said Julie Khani, president of the American Clinical Laboratory Assn., a trade group. “As laboratories respond to unprecedented spikes in demand for testing, we recognize our continued responsibility to deliver accurate and reliable results as quickly as possible.”
Dr. Temple Robinson, chief executive of Bond Community Health Center in Tallahassee, Fla., said test results have gone from a three-day turnaround to 10 days in the past several weeks. Many poor patients don’t have the ability to easily isolate from others because they live in smaller homes with other people. “People are trying to play by the rules, but you are not giving them the tools to help them if they do not know if they tested positive or negative,” she said.
“If we are not getting people results for at least seven or eight days, it’s an exercise in futility because either people are much worse or they are better” by then, she added.
Robinson said her health center responded to the delays by investing in its own rapid test machine. She held off buying the machine due to concerns the tests produced a high false negative rate but went ahead earlier this month in order to curtail the long waits, she said.
Robinson doesn’t blame the large labs and points instead to the surge in testing. “We are all drinking through a firehose, and none of the labs was prepared for this volume of testing,” she said. “It’s a very scary time.”
Azza Altiraifi, 26, of Vienna, Va., knows that all too well. She started feeling sick with respiratory symptoms and breathing problems on June 28. Within a few days, she had chills, aches and joint pain, followed by a needling sensation in her feet. She went to her local CVS to get tested on July 1 and was told she’d have the results in two to four days. As of July 7, she was still awaiting the result.
The most frustrating thing about her situation is that her husband is a paramedic, and his employer won’t let him work because he may have been exposed to the virus. He was tested July 6 and is still awaiting his own news.
“This is completely absurd,” Altiraifi said. She also worries that her husband may have unknowingly spread the virus on an ambulance call to a nursing home or other care facility before he began isolating at home. He has not shown any symptoms of COVID-19.
To healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, encountering people who indignantly refuse face coverings can feel like a slap in the face.
Charlie Rice-Minoso, a spokesperson for CVS Health, said patients are waiting an average of five to seven days for test results. “As demand for tests has increased, we’ve seen test result turnaround times vary due to temporary processing capacity limitations with our lab partners, which they are working to address,” he said.
Quest, one of the largest lab companies in the United States, said average turnaround time has increased from three to five days to four to six days in the past two weeks. The company has performed nearly 7 million COVID-19 tests this year.
“Quest is doing everything it can to add testing capacity to reduce turnaround times for patients and providers amid this crisis and the unprecedented demands it places on lab providers,” said spokesperson Kimberly Gorode.
At Treasure Coast Community Health in Vero Beach, Fla., officials are advising patients of a 10- to 12-day wait for results.
Chief executive Vicki Soule said Treasure Coast is deluged with calls every day from patients wanting to know where their test results are.
“The anxiety on the calls is way up,” she said.
Galewitz writes for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation and is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.