Five Facts About Delayed COVID Test Results

Many states face significant delays in producing test results for COVID-19. These delays make “contact tracing” all but useless.

  1. Turnaround times for Covid-19 test results vary greatly, but many are slow.

Results for some COVID-19 tests are known within an hour, but others take two weeks or more. As more Americans are being tested, turnaround times for the results “have doubled in the last few weeks,” says Dr. Stephen Parodi, an infectious disease specialist and clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente’s coronavirus response.

  1. Slow test results make it extremely difficult to control the virus’ spread.

Coronavirus test results “are taking so long to come back that experts say the results across the United States are often proving useless in the campaign to control the deadly disease,” The Washington Post reported in mid-July. The goal is to quickly detect who is sick; trace that person’s recent contacts; and isolate those people for roughly two weeks to see if they also contracted the virus. A slow testing process “makes contact tracing almost useless,” said Crystal R. Watson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. “By the time a person is getting results, they already have symptoms, their contacts may already have symptoms and have gone on to infect others.”

  1. Gaps in the supply chain often slow the testing process. 

Testing requires a wide range of materials and lab capacities. With virtually every state and nation trying to ramp up its testing, gaps in supply chains often appear. “The most profound shortage right now is tiny plastic pipette tips, which are critical for dispensing liquids onto a small plate to search for viral DNA,” The Mercury News of San Jose recently reported.

  1. Some nations produce test results much more quickly.

In South Korea, test results typically arrive within a day. South Korea took an intense and highly centralized approach to COVID-19 testing from the start, while the United States has largely left each state to its own decisions and resources. “Our federal response was to do the very least possible,” said Ashish K. Jha, who directs the Harvard Global Health Institute.

  1. Slow test results complicate decisions about safely reopening the economy.

In Alabama, a surge in coronavirus cases has overwhelmed the state’s testing capacity, and residents typically wait about a week for results, The Associated Press reports. Consequently, state officials have told employers they “should not require employees to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to work.”


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