RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Health officials say some Virginians are waiting 10 days for coronavirus test results and those delays are making it difficult to isolate new cases.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said in a press briefing on Wednesday that the state is averaging more than 16,000 tests per day, exceeding its early goal of 10,000 daily. Some experts argue that those numbers are ‘close to irrelevant’ if people aren’t getting their results back quickly.
Dr. Oliver said the delays are coming from commercial labs struggling with nationwide demand. Oliver estimated that these labs process about 60 percent of tests done in Virginia.
“So it’s a very concerning problem. It’s pretty widespread,” Oliver said in an interview with 8News.
A spokesperson for Quest Diagnostics, one of the private labs the state is working with, said in an email Wednesday that ‘persistent high demand’ has strained their testing capacity, contributing to a backlog that started building up 3 to 4 weeks ago.
“The most significant hurdle we face now is limits to complex testing platforms and chemical reagents required to perform testing,” the statement continued.
Quest said average turnaround time for reporting results is ‘over two days for priority 1 patients’ and seven days for all other patients, including transport. Priority 1 includes hospitalized patients, pre-operative patients and symptomatic healthcare workers.
LabCorp, another commercial lab, said they have reduced their average delivery time to 2-3 days from specimen pickup. A spokesperson said turnaround for hospitalized patients is faster.
“As additional equipment and supplies become available, we expect the average time to improve,” the statement added.
Former CDC Director Tom Frieden is calling on states to start releasing turnaround data on public dashboards–something one analysis found no health departments are currently doing. Frieden has said “the obsession” with overall testing numbers is largely useless. He said this metric doesn’t paint a clear picture of the nation’s capacity to track and isolate new cases quickly.
“I personally dont have any problems sharing that data,” Oliver said, noting that it would take some work to obtain the information from labs and standardize what should be included as turnaround time.
For faster results, Oliver recommended seeing a hospital-based provider. Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said on Tuesday that hospitals and university labs are generally getting back to people in 48-72 hours.
Oliver said some low-income Virginians may not be able to access care in this setting. The Virginia Department of Health has held about 280 free community testing events but Oliver said wait times for these vary, depending on who has been contracted to process the tests.
“What is very concerning to me and I think should be to all of us is the inequity in testing,” Gov. Ralph Northam said on Tuesday, also calling 10-day delays ‘unacceptable.’
Carey said that the state lab–the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS)–has maintained efficiency and is processing results in about 48 hours. The state lab lists its top priorities as outbreak investigations, congregate settings and the un-or underinsured.
DCLS also assists with ‘point prevalence surveys’ of vulnerable populations. During these surveys, large groups that share a common space are tested on the same day with the goal of catching asymptomatic cases.
On Tuesday, Deputy Commissioner of Population Health Dr. Laurie Forlano said many skilled nursing facilities are struggling with long wait times during weekly re-testing. In a phone call on Wednesday, Forlano clarified that these issues had to do with commercial labs. She wasn’t sure how long these facilities are waiting.
During her visit to Richmond on Tuesday, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx referenced pool testing as a potential solution. That’s when a batch of specimens are tested at the same time to save supplies. If the group comes back negative, then the process is done. If it’s positive, each sample is re-tested individually.
Oliver said this could be particularly effective in screening large, low-risk groups like students when some schools resume in-person learning this fall. Oliver said he isn’t aware of any pool testing being done in Virginia to date.
“The machines for doing this sort of testing are not readily available. Only a limited number are FDA approved,” Oliver said. “Unfortunately I believe this is one of those situations where a more coordinated national response would be needed to speed up the timeline on that. The federal government could do more to get this equipment to the states.”