COVID-19 testing labs overwhelmed by high demand due to case surges; some wait weeks for results

ByJason Knowles and and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Friday, July 24, 2020
Patients report weekslong waits for COVID-19 test results as cases surge
Wait times for COVID-19 testing results are dramatically increasing amid a surge in cases across the country.

OAK PARK, Ill. (WLS) -- The surge in COVID-19 cases is dramatically increasing wait times for test results.

The ABC 7 I-Team spoke to people who are waiting weeks to receive their results.

Health experts say this can cause problems tracking new cases, creating a domino effect. As cases surge in many states, demand for testing increases.

Sam Svita of Oak Park had a fever and wanted to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to work. So he went to a CVS on June 29, and ended up waiting 20 days for results.

"They said it would take about two to four days," Svita said.

A CVS test handout provided to ABC7 by another consumer also says the results take two to four days.

CVS told the I-Team that Svita and two other delayed patient results that ABC7 brought to the store's attention "were made available to them" online "over the last several days."

Svita said he got his less than a day after the I-Team contacted CVS.

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"You can imagine how frustrating it is. You are trying to get back to work, back to normalcy," Svita told the I-Team.

While he was waiting, Svita went to Rush Oak Park Hospital and got his results within two days.

The hospital said it processes its tests in-house with expectation of a returned test within 48 hours or sooner.

There was good news, Svita tested negative.

"I fear that people are really sick and can't get their results and people need to get back to work," Svita said.

CVS Health says it tells patients that third party labs are used, saying increased cases and the high demand has "caused backlogs for our lab partners," and that it may take six to 10 days or even longer for the results.

Nationally, testing is outpacing labs' abilities to turnaround results quickly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, 1.6 million Americans were tested compared to 56,000 the first week of April.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the country's largest labs, recently released their lab testing data, saying "Despite our rapid scaling up of capacity, soaring demand for COVID-19 molecular diagnostic tests across the United States is slowing the time in which we can provide test results." As a result, Quest's average turnaround time for non-hospitalized patients is "seven or more days".

"The labs are overwhelmed with the volume. With the lack of materials and volume, it's impossible to keep up," said DePaul University Bioethicist Craig Klugman, who tracks health trends and helps facilities make decisions on testing and treatment.

He said delayed results affect tracking and containing the virus.

"It makes it hard to do the contact tracing and it makes it hard to know where the hotspots are happening," Klugman said. "If somebody gets tested in a classroom, do we shut it down for a week? Do we shut down the school for a week until there is a test result?"

Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director for infectious disease and prevention at Advocate Aurora Health, agreed.

"It's important to implement contact tracing so if I have the disease, it's important to be able to track down all the people I've been in contact with for the last week or longer. So if I have to wait a week or longer for my test to come back, it makes that very difficult to do," Dr. Citronberg said.

Experts are also asking and discussing what companies should do if the backups at labs continue.

"If you can't get results of tests in a timely manner then you probably shouldn't be doing it. But in many cases that turnaround time is out of our control," Dr. Citronberg said. "As long as the numbers keep going up where the demand for testing supplies outstrips the supply, we are going to have these long delays in testing."

CVS Health says its lab partners are working hard to address the issue of delays. The company said it's actively in discussions with potential new lab partners to provide more testing during peak demand.

There are also testing options run by the state of Illinois. For more information, check out ABC7's state-run testing resource page.