Coronavirus: Why it takes so long to get COVID-19 test results

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High demand, lack of time, supplies cause delay in COVID-19 tests

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Those getting tested for COVID-19 might have noticed their result time push back from anywhere between seven to ten days.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health, said they have heard about the delays and said that demand is largely the issue.

“Right now, every single lab in the state, and quite frankly in the nation, is getting close to being maxed out on their capacity,” Piercey said.

Testing labs close to ‘maxed out’

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, the state uses mostly commercial laboratories to test COVID-19 specimens.

Integrity Laboratories, an independent lab in Knox County, tests COVID-19 specimens, but largely for hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Even though the company isn’t commercial, Christian Clevenger, CEO of Integrity Laboratories, said he knew why test results were seeing delays.

Clevenger said demand was largely the problem.

“We’re starting to see a bit of a surge, and because you’re seeing a surge, you’re seeing demand for testing go up dramatically. That puts a lot of stress on laboratories to be able to perform that testing,” Clevenger said.

Adding shifts due to demand

His company already added another shift so employees could test more specimen, which as of Thursday, the company tested 100,000 samples.

Integrity Labs will soon add a third shift to help with demand, allowing employees to test COVID-19 kits nearly 24-hours a day.

He said another reason for delay, which often coincides with demand, is lack of supplies.

Clevenger said that cotton swabs for the kits first became difficult to find, now it’s plastics and reagents.

“The other side of it are all the little reagents that you have to use in order for a reaction to occur in a laboratory like ours. You know, it takes a certain number of reagents to make that happen. And if your supplier can’t get those because the demand is so high, it can put heavy stress on laboratories out there,” Clevenger said.

Clevenger said his company has been fortunate enough to find multiple sources for supplies.

“We’re an independent laboratory here in East Tennessee. They’re a state laboratory that serves the entire state. So they have a very big responsibility and they’re running into the same supply chain issues as everyone else out there.”

Hospitals come first

He said another aspect causing delay could be priority of samples.

“Our hospitals are critical. We have to ensure they get these tests back as quickly as anyone else, and they take immediate priority in our facility,” Clevenger said.

That being said, his company tests hospital kits first. They even have a their own courier service to help get the samples to their lab faster, ultimately giving the hospitals a 24-hour turnaround time for results.

“We’re averaging right now, for our non-hospital clients, we’re averaging anywhere between 24 and 48 hours for our turnaround time for them. Now that can fluctuate based on volume,” Clevenger said.

Because his company largely handles hospital tests currently, Clevenger said the average person might be able to get a similar turnaround time if they get tested at a clinician’s office tied with a hospital system.

Clevenger said another reason behind the delays could also be the number of people possibly asymptomatic getting tested.

Tests of asymptomatic people adds to load

“I think that’s a big driver in the demand for testing right now, is it’s something unlike anything we’ve ever seen as a country. Most of the time if you have the flu, you have at least one or two symptoms that accompany the flu. In this case, some individuals do not display any symptoms,” Clevenger said.

Several types of essential workers are also being tested multiple times out of an abundance of caution.

Clevenger said that although those tests could add more to an already backlogged system, it’s also an important step to keep the most vulnerable safe.

“At the end of the day, you ask yourself, would you trade that stress for knowing that your family member is in good hands with a staff that has tested negative for COVID-19. And I think we all would trade that out for a little bit of extra time to get our results back,” Clevenger said.

When asked how long these delays could last, Clevenger said he had no clue, but it probably wouldn’t be until late Fall.

“Flu season is a time when a very confusing flu symptom can be perceived as a possible COVID-19 symptom. And so I think the, that time of the year–the flu season, allergy season–is going to also push the need for testing,” Clevenger said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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