COVID-19 test turnaround times stretch past a week for some

Experts: Late results damaging to public health

BOSTON — Last week, Quest Diagnostics, a major national processor of COVID-19 tests, said its average turnaround time had risen to more than two days. But some are waiting much longer than that to find out if they have the virus, whether it’s Quest handling the test or some other large, commercial lab.

“Periodically, through the course of the pandemic, they have literally become overwhelmed with COVID-19 tests and therefore that extends out their turnaround time, sometimes to five, seven, 10 days,” said Dr. Paul Sax, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “And that’s really, as many have said, unacceptable.”

Sax said those large processors, which also include LabCorp, should stop taking in tests they can’t handle in a timely fashion and allow smaller labs to pick up the slack. Labs have especially become overwhelmed in recent weeks as many Americans have rushed in to get tested before traveling for Thanksgiving.

“The majority of people are getting tested right now because they’re being told they have to be tested to travel,” said Dr. Mark Siedner, a public health researcher and expert with Massachusetts General Hospital. “So many airlines, many states are now requiring testing. So, I think a lot of the testing is being done because people are following the rules.”

They may be following certain rules, but not advice set down by the CDC and other public health organizations that have been urging Americans for weeks to stick with small, immediate-family gatherings this Thanksgiving to help curb the spread of the pandemic.

Worse, some may be reassured by COVID-19 tests too old to provide useful information or too new to ever make it back from the lab in time for the holiday.

“This is a disease with a 3 to 5 day incubation period,” Siedner said. “If the point of the test is to identify cases, get them isolated, find contacts of cases, get them quarantined and tested, [then in] five to seven days you’re out of the incubation period.”

Which means you’ve missed one of the prime objectives of testing: to limit the spread of disease.

Siedner said one way testing could accomplish a safe holiday visit is by quarantining for seven to 10 days, then getting a test and, if it’s negative, then traveling. But few have the ability to do that.

Sax advocates broader use of Rapid Antigen Testing as a way to bring down turnaround times.

“Even though we know that it’s not quite as accurate or quite as sensitive as PCR testing, Rapid Antigen Testing gives you results much more quickly and, also, more important, can be made in much higher volume and lower cost,” he said.

And while it doesn’t pick up low viral loads, Sax said those patients are less important when it comes to easing the pandemic, because they are less likely to transmit disease.

Siedner is hopeful that a new administration in Washington D.C. will essentially rewrite the book on COVID-19 testing once it assumes power.

“I’m hoping that we can find some new leadership here. That we can develop a thoughtful strategy,” he said. “And the funding that we really need to help both individuals and businesses to get through the next few months while we wait for an effective vaccine.”


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