A Surge In COVID-19 Testing Means a Delay In Results

covid-19 drive-thru testing


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Key Takeaways

  • Labs all across the country are struggling to keep up with the increasing amount of COVID-19 tests, causing results to be delayed.
  • On average, test results currently take five to 11 days to process.
  • Hospitals with access to rapid tests are more likely to offer same-day results.

As coronavirus (COVID-19) rates surge in states across the U.S., labs are struggling to keep up with the influx of diagnostic tests. The average lab currently takes five to 11 days to send out results after administering a test—a lag time that makes it difficult for people to know whether or not they should be isolating themselves.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, testing peaked in July, with July 17 marking the highest number of tests administered in one day so far: 837,392 tests.

In Miami, Florida, the current epicenter of the outbreak, lab lines are hundreds of people long. Miami resident Taylor Mazloum, 25, tells Verywell that she tried to get tested at a walk-up testing center on June 22, but was so overwhelmed by the volume of people that she left and went to a private lab instead.

“I arrived at the walk-up center early in the morning and found around 300 people already there,” Mazloum says. “There was chaos everywhere; it was like a scene from a dystopian film. Everyone was standing super close to each other coughing and sneezing and not sure what to do. I felt like if I didn’t already have the virus, I would get it just by being there.” 

Mazloum received a positive test result two days later and remained isolated at home for the next two weeks. When she returned to that same lab in mid-July to get a second test for medical clearance for work, she was told it would take around eight or nine days to get her results. She says her aunt tried to get tested there the next day, but was told the lab was stretched beyond its capacity and had stopped administering COVID-19 tests at all. 

Labs Are Feeling the Strain

If people don't proactively isolate themselves in the time it takes for test results to come back, they risk spreading the virus to anyone they come into contact with. And this spread places further strain on testing facilities, labs, pharmacies, and hospitals.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the most prominent commercial testing labs in the country, said in a July 13 statement that they've doubled their molecular diagnostic test capacity of 8 weeks ago.

"We have continued to experience surging demand for these services, with recent daily orders outpacing capacity," Quest says. "As a result, while our average turnaround time continues to be one day for priority 1 patients, it is now three to five days for all other populations."

At CIMA Medical Center, a local testing center in Miami, tests were originally outsourced to Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp for processing. This system worked well in the beginning, and results could be processed within three to four days. However, following a rapid increase in testing in states like Arizona and Texas, it started to take about 10 days for CIMA Medical Center to receive results.

“It was a nightmare. People were constantly calling us aggravated and upset about not having their test results back in time,” CIMA Medical Center manager Carlos Infante tells Verywell. “This was especially a problem when people needed medical clearance to travel and had flights coming up. We would run around calling the labs and asking them to check on their tests, but it’s difficult to speed up any test at a big lab because it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” 

To combat this problem, Infante looked for local, boutique labs that could process tests in 48 hours.

Where Available, Rapid Testing Can Help

Compared to testing centers and urgent care facilities, hospitals are able to better to keep up with testing demands thanks to rapid testing, which offers same-day results.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you should go directly to the hospital if you're experiencing emergency warning signs like trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, confusion, inability to stay awake, or bluish lips and or face. Otherwise, you should seek care—including testing—at a facility other than a hospital to help preserve resources. The Department of Health and Human Services website can help you find a community-based testing site near you.

Amira El Kholy, APRN, is an ICU nurse practitioner who works at several different hospitals across Miami. She tells Verywell that at the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare workers would conduct a nasal swab test, send it to a lab, and wait three days for processing. Even three days proved a problematic lag time for hospitals, since they isolated suspected COVID-19 patients while waiting for test results and began to run out of space.

Now, with the rapid test, patients can get their results back in three to four hours. If a patient is clearly exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms but gets a negative rapid test result, however, the hospital will still do a nasal swab test and wait the three days for it to process.

“Most patients who come into the ER have a high fever, a strong cough, and shortness of breath,” El Kholy says. “We always make sure to scan them for other conditions if they don’t present traditional COVID-19 symptoms, but we are usually able to make a diagnosis in a few hours and admit COVID-19 patients who are showing a severe inability to breathe or other intense symptoms.”

El Kholy says that hospitals typically have a set amount of rapid test tools per day, and once they run out of those, they resort to the traditional nasal swab tests. No matter what, though, they always have some form of testing device on-hand, which is not always the case at all testing centers, such as the one Mazloum and her aunt visited.

While they have tests available, El Kholy says hospitals are still struggling to keep up with caring for COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals have had a huge surge in just the past two weeks; the number of patients has nearly tripled," she says. "We’ve had to expand the number of beds in the ICU and make new ICU units. At one point, every single patient in the hospital was there with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. On some nights, we would have four patients die in the same unit. It was absolutely heartbreaking.”

The Problem With Delayed Results

El Kohly says a delay in test results diminishes the effectiveness of contact tracing, which other countries, such as South Korea, have used to effectively curb their COVID-19 rates. People are unable to let contact tracers know whether or not they have a confirmed diagnosis. And without a confirmed diagnosis, some people are not staying home.

“If you have the virus and don’t know about it, you can infect so many people,” El Kohly says. “It’s a domino effect; if one person has it and is around five people, those five people are going to get infected and spread it to more and more people.” 

According to the CDC, you should isolate yourself if you're experiencing any of the following COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of whether or not you've received a positive test result:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

“If there was ever a time to stay home, socially isolate, and wear a mask when you go out, that time is now," El Kohly says.

What This Means For You

Waiting a week or so for COVID-19 test results makes it difficult to work out treatment plans with your physician or decide whether or not to isolate. If you think you've been exposed or are experiencing symptoms, it's a good idea to quarantine for 14 days, even if you don't have a confirmed result.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19: What to do if you are sick.

  3. Kucharski A, Klepac P, Conlan A, Kissler S, et al. Effectiveness of isolation, testing, contact tracing, and physical distancing on reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in different settings: a mathematical modelling study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30457-6

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of coronavirus.