Coronavirus Test Results Still Taking Days For Many Floridians
Health experts say when test results are delayed it impacts contact tracing and quarantine efforts that help prevent the disease from spreading.
When Jennifer Bonamar’s son had COVID-19 symptoms in late September, she took him to a state-sponsored testing site in Sarasota.
Bonamar was told the results would come back in three to five days.
As the family waited, Bonamar required her sons to isolate.
“I had my kids quarantined in their rooms, with their masks on if come out of the room and bringing dinners to their rooms and you’ve got dishes,” she said. “You’re trying to do all the right things so life is really on hold while you’re waiting to hear back on the results.”
After a five she got tired of waiting and had the family tested at a hospital where she works. Within 24 hours, their negative results came back.
She’s still waiting on the results from the state-sponsored testing site.
Though she knows she did the right thing by quarantining, she says the longer it takes for test results to come back, the harder isolating can be.
“I could imagine there could be some incentive not to do the right thing because it’s such an inefficient process.”
Labs in Florida are processing coronavirus tests more quickly than they were when the pandemic began seven months ago. But on average, it's still taking between 24 and 72 hours for most people to get their test results.
Health experts say those delays can impact contact tracing and quarantine efforts that prevent the disease from spreading.
In an unscientific survey by Health News Florida, a majority of those who responded in the Tampa Bay area reported waiting about seventy-two hours for their results. In Miami, it was closer to 24 hours.
Hillsborough County closed four of its nine coronavirus testing sites after weeks of operating at 20 percent capacity because of a drop in demand.
But the decline in testing hasn't resulted in faster processing times. The turnaround time for test results is averaging 30 hours, said Jon-Paul Lavandeira, head of Hillsborough County’s testing task force. He said the process is likely as efficient as it can be.
“With everything involved, the travel time and the scientific part involved, I don't know if we can get much better with this particular way of testing to be honest with you,” Lavandeira said. “Right now I think we've pretty much leaned the process as much as we can on these labs.”
Hillsborough County uses Quest Diagnostics in Tampa to process tests from county-run sites. But at state-sponsored sites, Florida officials require tests to be sent to a private lab in Miami, Lavandeira said. The state canceled its contract with Quest in September.
Even with the six-hour travel time to Maimi, Lavandeira says the lab produces results in about 30 hours -- that's about as quickly as Quest in Tampa.
The state did not say why the tests are being sent to Miami.
“The Division works with multiple labs across all state-supported testing sites to ensure Floridians are able to receive results quickly,” said Samantha Bequer, press secretary for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “When a lab does not fulfill its obligations to provide testing results with an acceptable turnaround time, the Division stops doing business with that lab. The Division will continue to work with as many labs as necessary to ensure a quick turnaround time is being met at all state-supported testing sites.”
But is 30 hours the fastest a molecular -- or PCR -- test can be processed?
The answer depends on a few factors.
Tampa General Hospital can run up to 1,700 tests a day and produce results in as little as two hours -- but averages four to six hours.
The key is to not run too many tests at once, said Angie Lauster, administrative director of laboratory services for Tampa General.
“The more tests you try to load on the instrument, the slower you make the instrument,” Lauster said.
So volume can slow down test results, and so can a lack of machines.
Lauster says a shortage of testing supplies has also been a problem.
“The method of collection and the devices you use and the transport media has been on short supply,” Lauster said.
The supply shortage is a problem for labs across the state, she said.
Dr. David Andrews is a pathologist and chief of testing at Jackson Health System in Miami. He says they use different kinds of testing machines. But they frequently run low on reagents, or chemicals, that are needed to process the molecular tests.
“Just this week, we pretty much ran out,” Andrews said. “Oh, my God. It’s shipping right? And it arrives.”
In that case, it was the supply for machines that can produce results within an hour.
That machine is reserved for patients who need quick results. But the hospital tests everyone who is admitted.
Miami-Dade County requires labs to turn around tests quickly -- it's written into their contracts. Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp says companies that process tests from county sites must produce results within 48 hours.
“The best tool you have for not infecting your family is to know your status,” Kemp said. “So the sooner you take a test and then the sooner you get that result, the better equipped you are to not infect your family and your friends and other associates.”
Health experts agree, if you have to wait days for your results, the odds that you'll infect someone else will only increase.