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Labs Under Strain Of Large Covid Test Load

July 15th, 2020
WLOX Mobile, AL - July 15, 2020

More tests means more work for the laboratories that process them. In Mobile, Coast Diagnostics processes coronavirus tests for about 35 South Mississippi clinics. Even with a 24-7 operation, they remain at their capacity.

“There’s a demand right now that is higher than the supply,” said Coast Diagnostics CEO Brian Ward.

Coast Diagnostics in Mobile processes between 2,500 and 3,500 COVID swab tests a day from clinics in four states. They have expanded their facility and hired 55 new people in the last two months, but the demand doesn’t decrease. It brings into question whether there should be better controls on who gets tested and when.

“The asymptomatic population is the one that has really overloaded the system and caused some delays across the country in testing because they don’t show symptoms, but they’ve been exposed to it,” Ward said. “You don’t really want to test those if you don’t have to, but then you get the test inside and you find out they’re positive. That’s a big deal.” That paradox is causing much debate across the country about who to test and when.

At the same time, the positivity rate of tests at the lab has grown from around 10 percent to 20 percent, meaning many of those asymptomatic people are positive. But others may be getting tested too early in the virus’ incubation cycle.

“You’re looking at really a 14-day period from being exposed to someone and that positive can show up at any time,” Ward said. “It varies by people, which from a testing standpoint makes this disease so hard to get your hand around because you can be a positive any time during that 14-day period.”

That hit and miss aspect of the testing is likely causing the virus to spread.

Ward described a typical situation they encounter.

“Someone’s been exposed, they come in and get tested within three or four days of that exposure wherever they went along the Coast, and then they get a negative and they think they’re good, and then they go out and they don’t realize that day 11 they start to run a fever and the amount of people they have exposed in that time is a huge deal.”

For that reason, Ward said it is important to self-quarantine for a full 14 days after exposure, even if you have received a negative test.

The demand for COVID tests is also putting a strain on clinics providing the tests.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of communicating to patients to have patience and let physicians do what they do, let us run as many tests as we can run and max the system,” he said. “But we will get the results back to you in a timely fashion of what the machines allow us to do.”

In other words, Ward said, don’t call the clinic for test results, wait for the clinic to call you.