(The Associated Press)

(The Associated Press)

World COVID-19 cases top 15M; US labs buckle amid testing surge

Some labs are taking weeks to return COVID-19 results over the border

Laboratories across the U.S. are buckling under a surge of coronavirus tests, creating long processing delays that experts say are actually undercutting the pandemic response.

With the U.S. tally of infections at 3.9 million Wednesday and new cases surging, the bottlenecks are creating problems for workers kept off the job while awaiting results, nursing homes struggling to keep the virus out and for the labs themselves, dealing with a crushing workload.

Some labs are taking weeks to return COVID-19 results, exacerbating fears that asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus if they don’t isolate while they wait.

“There’s been this obsession with how many tests are we doing per day” said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The question is how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is promptly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned.”

Frieden and other public health experts have called on states to publicly report testing turnaround times, calling it an essential metric to measure progress against the virus.

The testing lags in the U.S. come as the number of people confirmed to be infected globally passed a staggering 15 million on Wednesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. leads the world in cases as well as deaths, which stand at more than 142,000 nationwide. New York, once by far the U.S. leader in infections, has been surpassed by California, though that is partly due to robust testing in a state with more than twice the population of New York.

Guidelines issued by the CDC recommend that states lifting virus restrictions have testing turnaround time under four days. The agency is expected to soon issue new guidelines recommending against retesting COVID-19 patients to confirm they’ve recovered.

“It’s clogging up the system,” Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant health secretary, told reporters last week.

Zachrey Warner knows it all too well.

The 30-year-old restaurant server from Columbus, Ohio, was sent home from work July 5, a few days after he began experiencing fever, diarrhea, chest tightness and body aches. He went for a test five days later at the request of his employer and was told he’d have results within 72 hours.

Almost two weeks later, he’s still waiting.

Though Warner said most symptoms stopped a few days after he

was tested, he hasn’t been allowed to return to work without the result. On Tuesday, he received an email that the results still aren’t available and that he must remain quarantined through Thursday or until he gets his result.

“The story is always the same: Apparently the lab they send tests to received over 30,000 tests in a week and they’re backed up,” Warner said. “I’ve missed out on a whole pay period.”

Beyond the economic hurt the testing lags can cause, they pose major health risks too.

In Florida, as the state confirmed 9,785 new cases on Wednesday and the death toll rose to nearly 5,500, nursing homes have been under an order to test all employees every two weeks. But long delays for results have some questioning the point.

Jay Solomon, CEO of Aviva in Sarasota, a senior community with a nursing home and assisted living facility, said results were taking up to 10 days to come back.

“It’s almost like, what are we accomplishing in that time?” Solomon said. “If that person is not quarantined in that 7-10 days, are they spreading without realizing it?”

Test results that come back after two or three days are nearly worthless, many health experts say, because by then the window for tracing the persons’s contacts to prevent additional infections has essentially closed.

U.S. officials have recently called for ramping up screening to include seemingly healthy Americans who may be unknowingly spreading the disease in their communities. But Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s largest testing chains, said it can’t keep up with demand and most patients will face waits of a week or longer for results

Quest has urged health care providers to cut down on tests from low-priority individuals, such as those without symptoms or any contact with someone who has tested positive.

The U.S. is testing over 700,000 people per day, up from less than 100,000 in March. Trump administration officials point out that roughly half of U.S. tests are performed on rapid systems that give results in about 15 minutes or in hospitals, which typically process tests in about 24 hours. But last month, that still left some 9 million tests going through laboratories, which have been plagued by limited chemicals, machines and kits to develop COVID-19 tests.

There is no scientific consensus on the rate of testing needed to control the virus in the U.S., which has the most cases and deaths of any nation. But experts have recommended for months that the U.S. test at least 1 million to 3 million people daily to catch new cases.

Health experts assembled by the Rockefeller Foundation said last week that the U.S. should scale up to testing 30 million Americans per week by the fall, when school reopenings and flu season are expected to further exacerbate the virus’ spread. The group acknowledged that their figure will not be possible with the current laboratory-based testing system.

The National Institutes of Health has set up a “shark tank” competition to quickly identify promising rapid tests and has received more than 600 applications. The goal is to have new testing options in mass production by the fall.

Until then, the the backbone of U.S. testing remains at several hundred labs with high-capacity machines capable of processing thousands of samples per day. Many say they could be processing far more tests if not for global shortages of testing chemicals, pipettes and other lab materials.

Dr. Bobbi Pritt of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says the hospital’s machines are running at just 20% of capacity. Lab technicians run seven different COVID-19 testing formats, switching back and forth depending on the availability of supplies.

At Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, lab workers lobby testing manufacturers on a weekly basis to provide more kits, chemicals and other materials.

“There’s no planning ahead, we just do as many as we can and cross our fingers that we’ll get more,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, who heads the hospital’s testing lab.

Matthew Perrone, Tammy Webber And Matt Sedensky, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

Kindergarten class out learning some basic safety and biking skills on Spirit North Day. (Rachelle van Zanten photo/Lakes District News)
Spirit North’s after school program for spring and summer begin

The Spirit North’s after-school program at Morris Williams Elementary school has been… Continue reading

Indigenous count crucial to determining services

Pandemic protection measures in place for Indigenous communities

Kenny Olson in the bakery department where he worked for the past two years. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Community bids adieu to Kenny Olson

Retirement beckons after 40 years with Overwaitea/Save-On Foods

Beth Berlin with Lisa Cant after administering vaccines at the one-day walk-in clinic in Burns Lake last week. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Burns Lake health area sees 50 per cent immunized population

Unknown when further clinics may be held

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Most Read