CBS 58 Investigates: Coronavirus testing result delays

CBS 58 Investigates: Coronavirus testing result delays

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – As the coronavirus continues to rampage across the country, testing has struggled to keep up, leaving patients and public health officials in the dark. A CBS 58 Investigation finds slow testing results cause a chain reaction of problems.

Lines at the Wisconsin National Guard testing sites in Milwaukee have been a familiar scene for months, but the lines there don’t matter as much as the lines at the test processing labs.

“Testing is a really pivotal piece to our ability to control the outbreak of COVID-19,” said University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Epidemiology Professor Amanda Simanek. She said a positive test starts all kinds of processes. Contact tracing, self-isolation, knowing simply where the virus is. She said speed is key.

“Twenty-four hours is ideal,” said Simanek.

But getting coronavirus test results turned around that quickly has proved to be a national challenge.

“To wait up to seven days or longer before you know you are positive,” said Simanek, means people can keep spreading the disease if they don’t think they’re positive, don’t feel sick, and stick to their daily routine.

“When we start talking about a week or longer, it almost makes there no point to the test,” said Simanek.

Viewers responding to CBS 58 Investigates on Facebook experienced a variety of testing turnaround times.

“Fourteen days after getting tested at CVS in Pewaukee,” said one commenter.

“Three days at the UMOS National Guard site,” said another.

“July 23rd tested at CVS in Waukesha and still waiting,” commented a third. (The comment was written on August 4.)

A Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokesperson told CBS 58 Investigates testing turnaround times at state-run sites average one to three days. But the spokesperson said it is seeing significantly slower turnaround times from sites using national reference laboratories, like CVS, Walgreens, or Walmart. One of those national labs, Quest Diagnostics, said it's now averaging a two to three day turnaround, down from five days earlier in August.

“There was tremendous progress made, unfortunately, the need is outstripping our ability to keep up with it,” said UW Health Chief Quality Officer Jeff Pothof.

He said with so many tests still needed, the supply chains are still vulnerable.

“Because the virus is really flourishing so well across the United States, there is extraordinary demand for testing,” said Pothof.

That’s impacted local testing. Advocate Aurora Health consolidated 12 of its community testing sites down to two in early August because of a lack of testing supplies.

“Some suppliers are experiencing diversion of their products,” said Chief Aurora Medical Group Officer Jeff Bahr.

Bahr said he’s not surprised the federal government is still moving supplies around.

“As the incidence of COVID-19 has gone up and down, our need for specific supplies has gone up and down commensurate with that,” said Bahr.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, Simanek said it can feel like we’re living in the beginning of it all over again.

“It’s disappointing that we feel like we’re back in this position of having an issues of supply and demand around testing,” said Simanek.

Pooled testing could be a way forward to stretch testing supplies. A pooled test combines multiple people’s samples into one test. However, experts caution with so much disease still here in Wisconsin, pooled testing could likely waste more tests than it saves.

Wisconsin has relied on a Madison company to provide key testing supplies to labs across the state. State health officials said that’s worked, but they’re still trying to convince the federal government to stop diverting supplies away from Wisconsin.

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