As novel coronavirus cases soar across the country, states are struggling to keep up with the demand for testing. Some states are reporting big backlogs and difficulty getting tests.
“We need to actually continue doing a bunch of work in America to figure out additional approaches to do testing,” said Dr. Bob Kocher.
Dr. Kocher is the former co-chair of California's Testing Task Force. The state formed the team back in March to figure out how to get everyone tested. Back then, they were struggling to do 2,000 tests a day. Now, they're doing more than 100,000 a day.
“California, and most states, had giant shortages of the world’s most expensive Q-tips, called swabs, that you need to collect the samples and the people who make them couldn’t make more of them,” Dr. Kocher explained. “We worked with companies to 3-D print them and to source those from other places in the world and buy them and bring them to California.”
They worked to find labs that could do high-capacity testing and expanded the number of testing sites. But as cases increased across the state and nation, five months into the pandemic, testing turnaround time is an issue.
“It’s something I’m concerned about as demand for testing grows everywhere in the country and on the earth, the labs are going to sporadically have backlogs, and over time, they could have backlogs because it’s hard to make more supply of the test,” Dr. Kocher said.
Dr. Kocher says it depends on where the test is sent. Some labs have backlogs and it’s a logistics issue. If the lab your test site is using is in another part of the country, it'll likely take longer to get results.
In a statement, Quest Diagnostics said, "We are grappling with surging demand that is outpacing capacity. This is due to surging cases of COVID-19 across much of the United States, particularly the West, Southwest and South. We have a prioritization program to help direct testing to patients most in need. Our turnaround time for priority one patients is 1 day on average."
In a recent press conference, California's Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said supply chain challenges forced the state to prioritize who gets tested first.
“Surges across the nation have created challenges of getting tests processed, not just collected, and ensuring our guidelines not only say who needs to be tested but give guidance to labs on which specimens to process first,” Dr. Kocher said.
Right now, priority means those who are hospitalized, healthcare workers, first responders, social service employees, those who are 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions. But, we simply need more tests.
“The challenge with COVID-19 is that each person infects two, three more people and that leads to exponential growth of people who are infected and exponential growth in demand for testing,” Dr. Kocher said. “The companies who manufacture tests have been extraordinary scaling up their capacity to manufacture tests they can grow them by 10, 30 maybe a 100 percent, but the demand for COVID testing is growing 1,000 percent.”
The American Clinical Laboratory Association which represents Quest and other labs released a statement saying many labs are getting more test orders than they're able to process in a single day.
In a statement, the company said, "We can’t do it alone. Laboratories, diagnostic manufacturers, ordering providers, public health officials, states and importantly, the federal government – including Congress and the Administration – all have a role to play in addressing the challenges hampering our nation’s response to this public health crisis."
The test, Dr. Kocher says, only tells you if you're infectious at the time you were tested. It's yet another hurdle for states to tackle.
"So, we need to figure out what is the mechanism to test people at the right frequency to make us all safe and fell confident in going to work, school, nursing home or being an essential worker,” he said. “It’s really important.”
Figuring out what that looks like means looking at new technologies, getting the government involved and working on our manufacturing sector so we have more tests and fewer logistical problems as we consistently try to keep up with the virus that seems to be one step ahead of us all.