Why Your COVID Test Results Take That Long

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Jan. 14, 2022 — As the Omicron variant has swept across the U.S., now blamed for more than 98% of COVID-19 infections, the demand for testing at labs has skyrocketed — especially since home antigen tests are scarce.

On the rise, too, are complaints from test takers, who echo this anxious question:

What’s taking so long for results?

Promised turnaround times of 24 to 48 hours are stretching to several days, as people wonder if they should isolate or carry on with their regular schedule.

The increased volume is a major reason, of course, but not the only one.

“You’d be surprised by what the time delays are,” says Dan Milner, MD, chief medical officer for the American Society for Clinical Pathology, an organization for lab professionals.

The journey of the nasal swab — from the collection point to the test results arriving by text or email — is more involved and complicated than most people realize, Milner and other experts say. The many steps along the way, as well as staffing and other issues, including outbreaks of COVID-19 among lab staff, can delay the turnaround time for results.

First, the Volume Issue

National statistics as well as daily tallies from individual labs reflect the boom in test requests.

On Jan. 11, the average for COVID-19 tests in the U.S. reached nearly 2 million a day, an increase of 43% over a 14-day period.

By Jan. 12, Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory with more than 2,000 U.S. patient locations, had logged 67.6 million COVID tests since they launched the service in 2020. That was an increase of about 3 million since Dec. 21, when their total was 64.7 million.

At the UCLA Clinical Microbiology Lab, more than 2,000 COVID tests are processed daily now, compared to 700 or 800 a month ago, says Omai B. Garner, PhD, director of clinical

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