If Your Test Results Take This Long, They're of "Little Value," Doctor Says

The former head of the CDC called attention to the COVID testing lag in a new essay.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. raced to increase its coronavirus testing capacity. With few resources, in many places, only frontline workers and people showing serious symptoms were encouraged to seek out a test. Now, a COVID test is much easier to obtain, even if you just suspect that you were exposed or want to find out your status before seeing a family member or going back into work. Unfortunately, considerable demand (particularly in states where COVID numbers are spiking) has led to increased wait time for results in many situations. And the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that that lag can be so detrimental as to cancel out the test completely. If you have to wait at least 48 hours for your coronavirus test results, then those results are "of little value," says Tom Frieden, MD, MPH.

In an essay published on LinkedIn on July 14, Frieden addresses some of the recent reports distributed by the CDC. "It's clear the U.S. does not have COVID-19 under control," he writes, adding that the "virus is surging, and our response remains fragmented."

While you may think you're doing your due diligence by getting tested, Frieden's words provide a sobering reality check. "Tests that take more than 48 hours to come back are of little value," he says. This lag limits the government's ability to track and trace new cases. There's also always the possibility that an individual contracts COVID-19 as they await their test results. Thus, they may receive a negative result though they're actually now positive and not take the necessary quarantine precautions.

Frighteningly, Frieden writes, it's the hardest hit states that face the most challenges when it comes to swiftly tracing cases. That means, he says, that "the situation will get worse before it gets better."

Test providers are continuing to amp up their services as much as possible, but several have publicly spoken out about obstacles to providing quick results, including disruptions and delays in the supply chain due to the pandemic. In other words, simply getting the supplies they need to process tests can be an issue.

"It's not shortages of any one thing. It's now spot shortages of all of them," Scott Becker, of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told The Washington Post recently. "Clinical labs need more swabs, chemical reagents, viral transport media, test kits, machines to process the tests, staffing to run the machines."

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Spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Mia Heck told the outlet that in about half of states, it takes two to three days on average for the lab to get results; in 24 states, the stretch is three to four days. Heck claimed that only two states are seeing an average of four to five days from test to result. But, the Post notes, "that does not include further delays in getting the results to patients." This is critical time lost.

Until the U.S. is able to decrease these wait periods, individuals who think they might have been exposed should take extra care when waiting for results. Self-quarantine if you can, always wear a mask when you leave the house for essential trips, and wash your hands frequently. For more on what these tests tell us, check out Are COVID Numbers Spiking Because of Testing? Here's What Experts Say.

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