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More COVID-19 testing demand means longer waits to get results

Updated July 8, 2020 - 3:26 am

Increased demand for COVID-19 diagnostic testing is resulting in longer turnaround times for results, a week or more in some cases, according to test sites and laboratories.

The demand for testing in Nevada has grown as the number of COVID-19 cases has surged across the country, especially in the Southwest.

“With that surge, people understandably want to be tested, and that increased demand is leading to backlogs,” said Dr. Michael Gardner, vice dean of clinical affairs for UNLV’s School of Medicine, which operates a major drive-thru testing site.

The spikes in cases are “making people nervous” about whether they might be sick, he said, with some also needing to be tested before returning to work.

The delays can affect when individuals infected with the new coronavirus as well as their contacts begin to self-quarantine, challenging efforts to tamp down disease transmission.

Longer turnaround times

Nevada is testing at record levels now, in contrast to early in the local outbreak, when, as in the rest of the country, testing was primarily limited to the sickest individuals. By early May, testing capacity had increased in Southern Nevada to the point that anyone who wished to be tested, including those without any symptoms, could get a test.

Yet there’s “still more demand than there is capacity right now,” Gardner said.

Commercial lab Quest Diagnostics posted on its website Monday that because of increased demand, turnaround time for test results for everyone but high-priority patients, such as those who are hospitalized, is four to to six days. As recently as June 25, Quest’s turnaround time was two to three days.

Results from commercial lab LabCorp are taking twice as long to deliver than they did recently, now up to three to four days. That is due to increases in testing in recent weeks.

“We are doing everything we can to continue delivering results in a timely manner while continually increasing testing capacity,” LabCorp spokeswoman Nadia Damouni said.

A spokesman for Sunrise Health system, which operates CareNow urgent care clinics in Southern Nevada, said turnaround times may be even longer.

“Our major partners, Quest and LabCorp, are now processing double or even triple the amount of tests, resulting in 5-8 day result times,” spokesman Antonio Castelan wrote in an email.

During times of peak demand, testing results from CVS drive-thru sites, which use third-party labs, may take five to seven days.

“As demand for tests has increased, we have seen test result turnaround times vary due to temporary processing capacity limitations with our lab partners, which they are working to address,” CVS spokeswoman Monica Prinzing said.

Once a lab has processed a test, the results still need to be delivered to the patient. At UNLV Medicine’s testing site, it’s taking 48 hours or less to get test results from University Medical Center’s lab and another couple of days to inform patients of results, Gardner said. He hopes to reduce this four- to five-day time frame, increased by both testing volumes and the long weekend, to three to four days.

Patients testing at the Thomas & Mack Center and Texas Station generally can get their test results within 48 hours, said Scott Kerbs, a spokesman for UMC, which operates the public testing sites in conjunction with Clark County and the Nevada National Guard.

The state public health lab in Reno, which had been taking anywhere from one to three days to process test results, now is taking on average four days, according to a calculation by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said Mark Pandori, the lab’s director.

Turnaround times “correlate directly with the bulk of specimen traffic coming into the lab,” Pandori said.

In some instances, it also is taking longer to schedule an appointment for a test.

Whereas testing appointments recently could be scheduled for the following day or even the same day, UNLV Medicine, the university’s medical practice, is now booked for testing until next week, Gardner said.

Testing centers at the Thomas & Mack Center and Texas Station have appointments available later this week, Kerbs said.

Self-quarantine delays

Delays in receiving test results may result in delays in infected people self-quarantining, Gardner and other health officials said, though they recommend self-quarantining while awaiting results.

Delays in testing results also delay contact tracing, in which public health authorities reach out to close contacts of newly diagnosed people and ask them to self-quarantine to prevent possible disease transmission.

Public health officials can’t begin contact tracing “until receipt of that positive laboratory results,” said Julia Peek, deputy administrator in the state Department of Health and Human Services. “And so if there’s any delays in that process, we cannot begin the case investigation.”

Caleb Cage, the state government’s COVID-19 response director, said that despite some delays in obtaining test results, contact tracing remains an effective tool, one that identified one-fifth to one-quarter of Nevada’s cases. He did not envision any changes in the near future that would restrict who can be tested to eliminate any bottleneck.

Gardner hopes to avoid the situation playing out in Phoenix and elsewhere, where long lines of people are waiting for hours in the their cars to be tested.

“How are we going to get enough people and enough places, preferably indoors because of the heat, where we can meet the demands?” he said. “I think that that needs to be a coordinated plan across the county for the remainder of the calendar year.”

He projects that the demand for testing will last at least that long because until there’s a vaccine for the new coronavirus, “there is no magic bullet.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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