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Covid-19 Test Results Frequently Taking Over a Week and Only Getting Longer

Cars line up for covid-19 testing at Miami Beach Convention Center on July 13, 2020 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Cars line up for covid-19 testing at Miami Beach Convention Center on July 13, 2020 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Quest Diagnostics, the largest private medical testing company in the U.S., released a letter on Monday warning that the average wait time for non-emergency coronavirus test results is currently at least seven days. The really scary part: Quest says wait times aren’t going to get any shorter while the U.S. continues to have the worst covid-19 outbreak in the world.

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“We now have capacity to perform up to 125,000 molecular diagnostic tests a day, roughly double our capacity 8 weeks ago,” Quest said in a letter posted online, leading with the more positive news. “By the end of July, we expect to have the capacity to perform 150,000 molecular diagnostic tests a day.”

Running 125,000 tests a day may seem like a lot, and that’s roughly one-sixth of all tests conducted in the U.S. every day, but that’s not even a fraction of the number that public health experts believe the U.S. should be doing to contain the virus.

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The letter continues with the most distressing information, admitting that things aren’t going so great for people who want to get tested in a timely manner.

“Despite that dramatic increase, demand for testing is increasing even faster. As a result, our average turnaround time for reporting test results is slightly more than 1 day for our priority-1 patients. However, our average turnaround time for all other populations is 7 or more days,” Quest said in a statement.

The seven “or more” days leaves plenty of wiggle room for the actual average, but the most pressing question raised by this letter is who precisely qualifies as a “priority-1 patient”? According to Quest, it includes people going in for surgery, existing hospital patients, and symptomatic healthcare workers. Healthcare workers without any symptoms who want to get tested have to wait in line with the rest of us.

The letter finally gets into the worst news by the end, warning that the entire medical lab test industry is struggling with an uncontrolled pandemic in the U.S.

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“We want patients and healthcare providers to know that we will not be in a position to reduce our turnaround times as long as cases of covid-19 continue to increase dramatically across much of the United States. This is not just a Quest issue. The surge in covid-19 cases affects the laboratory industry as a whole,” the Quest letter reads.

The U.S. has identified at least 3.36 million cases of coronavirus and over 135,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. Hotspots like Arizona, Texas, and California have seen a dramatic increase in cases over the past week, with many hospitals running out of ICU beds, and Florida is the worst-hit region right now, reporting a record number of cases each day. Florida identified 15,299 cases on Sunday alone, a new record.

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But even those numbers are considered to be severe undercounts of the real problem. According to former FDA commission Scott Gottlieb, who frequently appears on CBS News and CNBC, the actual number of infections in the U.S. is likely tens times higher than what states are reporting every day, and that’s likely because states are simply running up against the maximum number of tests they can perform. Using Gottlieb’s estimate, Florida probably had at least 150,000 cases on Sunday.

When you get tested for coronavirus, it’s vital to get a timely result to evaluate whether you should self-isolate and help slow the spread to your family, your friends, and the broader public. But many Americans have complained on social media about waiting at least 10 days for their results, with some people even waiting as long as 22 days for results in Arizona. This new announcement from Quest Diagnostics confirms the average wait time for test results is currently over a week and it’s not getting shorter anytime soon.

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Several right-wing media and political figures promised throughout February, March, and even April that the U.S. would rise to the occasion and beat the new coronavirus through innovative technologies only available in America. But the U.S. is way behind other wealthy countries when it comes to combatting the disease, largely thanks to a lack of planning by President Donald Trump, who believes the virus will just magically “go away” one day, even without human intervention.

CNBC host Jim Cramer said on March 5 that the U.S. wouldn’t see a deadly pandemic like Italy was experiencing because America’s health system was simply far superior.

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“In any pandemic of any major proportion, including the 1958 incredible flu season, there’s always a number of people who die overseas, and the public health system is just so poor overseas,” Cramer said on CBNC on March 5.

“Obviously, it’s very bad in Italy,” Cramer added, which simply isn’t true.

Just 159 Americans had been infected and 11 had died in Washington and California at the time. And states had conducted very few tests, unlike other wealthy countries had done by March 5. The U.S. lost at least a month by trying to develop its own test in February, rather than use the test developed by the World Health Organization, which the rest of the world used to quickly stand up their testing regimes.

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Depressingly, Florida had conducted just 29 tests by March 5, as Gizmodo reported at the time. Colorado had done just 58 tests. Iowa had conducted eight tests. And Americans are still paying the price for that slow response on testing.

And former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney even said back on February 28 that “socialized medicine” in Europe would hamper the continent’s ability to respond to the crisis and that people would be able to get treated much quicker in the U.S. thanks to free-market capitalism.

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“We know how to do this,” Mulvaney told CPAC 2020 about handling health care during a pandemic. “You do look at some of the European countries, and we sort of sit back and go... if you’re already waiting in line, five weeks or six weeks for something, and now a couple hundred people get in front of you in line or a thousand people get in line for coronavirus, what does it do to your healthcare system?”

“They’re already strained, because socialized medicine does not work, and it especially doesn’t work in crises like this,” Mulvaney continued.

That turned out to be bullshit, as Mulvaney took to CNBC on Monday with an op-ed to complain that his own family has been forced to wait roughly a week for test results:

I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country. My son was tested recently; we had to wait 5 to 7 days for results. My daughter wanted to get tested before visiting her grandparents, but was told she didn’t qualify. That is simply inexcusable at this point in the pandemic.

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Mulvaney did not point out the obnoxious comments he made back in February, nor did he admit being wrong.

There’s obviously no easy local solution to the coronavirus pandemic, which is why every country that has successfully managed to slow the spread has employed solutions from the top levels of government. President Trump has shown he’s simply not interested in stopping the spread, putting the onus on private companies like Quest Diagnostics to fix the problem. Quest obviously can’t fix this by itself, just as free-market capitalism more broadly will not be able to solve any public health crisis alone. That’s not necessarily Quest’s fault. It’s simply doing what’s going to make it the most money.

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Quest Diagnostics reported revenue of $7.73 billion in 2019. Quest’s share price is up 9.4% since last year.

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

If people would just wear their fucking mask, and stop being babies about it, we could all get back to a normalish reality sooner.