As Covid-19 cases in the US spike, some states, labs and public health departments are warning that turnaround times for diagnostic testing have slowed.
The challenges, which stem in part from persistent obstacles in the test supply chain, underscore that while overall US testing capacity has multiplied, the nation’s health system still struggles in some regions to rapidly detect the spread of the virus.
In response to the surge in cases, the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday the launch of new testing sites in three hotspots – Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas. The sites will offer 5,000 free tests per city each day on a temporary basis, according to an HHS news release.
Despite federal efforts to support testing in some cities and regions, three major diagnostic companies – Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp and BioReference Laboratories – said this week that the growing demand for tests have in turn increased average wait times for delivering results.
Quest said results now take an average of four to six days for the general population, much longer than the turnaround time in early June when the company was producing results in two to three days. The company said tests for hospital patients and symptomatic health care workers are prioritized and take one day on average. Quest cited “unprecedented demand,” especially in the South, Southwest and Western regions of the country where coronavirus cases are spiking.
A spokesperson for LabCorp told CNN Monday that its tests are taking about two to four days to come back. Before the increase in demand, LabCorp says it had been delivering coronavirus test results on average between one and two days.
BioReference is now delivering results in about three days. Quest, LabCorp and BioReference said they plan to increase their testing capacity.
US Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir acknowledged Tuesday that wait times for test results at commercial labs are generally increasing, though he said the US is now doing an “unprecedented” level of tests and is averaging more than 600,000 per day.
He said test turnaround times for tests in Montana and Washington DC, are averaging four to five days, whereas other states have shorter average waits.
“We did anticipate that the lab capacity would at some point in time come close to reaching a max. I’m not saying it’s at a max now, but we are certainly pushing the frontiers,” said Giroir, who emphasized that while testing is an essential component of the fight against the virus, it’s not the most important.
“The most critical factor is going to be personal discipline. It’s the physical distancing, wear a mask, avoid crowds,” Giroir said.
Giroir said greater availability of rapid, “point of care” tests in coming months should lower the burden on some laboratories. He said he expects that by August or September the poi