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Local residents report long delays for COVID-19 test results

Facebook group said wait times varied from 3 to 21 days

Delays in getting results for COVID-19 tests are causing onerous uncertainty nationwide, statewide and locally — with delays as long as three weeks reported for this area.

An adult son of Valerie Metzler of Altoona waited three weeks and two days, then was called in to a local specimen collection facility to have another sample taken Friday, with apologies, Metzler reported.

Dan from Altoona, who didn’t want his last name used, waited three weeks for test results from the same facility, as did his daughter — although she received a quick-turnaround test because of an upcoming procedure that made the delayed results of her first test moot, when they arrived, he said.

A local Facebook group called Covid Comfort Zone shared wait times this week that ranged from three to 21 days, with an average of 14, reported Erin Murphy, a Penn State Altoona English professor.

“Long delays mean people face a much higher burden of quarantining while waiting for results,” stated Zoe McLaren, associate professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in a July 24 article published in “The Conversation,” a network of non-profit media outlets that publish news stories from academics and researchers.

The quarantine period for people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 is two weeks, so confusion can ensue when test results haven’t arrived after that, said Dr. Zane Gates, co-founder of a local primary care practice.

The presumption is that if you’ve waited two weeks and you have no symptoms “you’re good,” Gates said.

But there are people who are infected without symptoms, and they can be contagious.

Delayed results also can make contact tracing difficult or impossible, according to Gates.

It’s not hard to remember one’s contacts when a tracer is doing a case investigation for a sexually transmitted disease, but it can be hard to remember when a COVID-19 tracer is asking one to identify “everybody you bumped into” for the past two weeks, he said.

“To make matters worse, people who receive negative results may have a false sense of security, when they could have been infected between the time of the testing and the results,” Murphy wrote in an email to the Mirror.

Ultimately, quick-turnaround testing will be critical for curbing the pandemic, because it will help the medical community get a high percentage of infected people, including those who are asymptomatic, out of circulation before they have a chance to infect others, according to an article titled “New COVID-19 test returns results in 45 minutes, without nasal swab,” in a publication of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Since COVID-type symptoms resulted in Metzler’s son being sent home from work, he’s been isolating at home and can’t go back to his job, she said.

She herself hasn’t been feeling well, and she’s inclined to ask her doctor to order a test, but “I haven’t made plans — partly because if (her son’s) took this long, where should I go?” she said rhetorically. “I would have felt more confident if he had had a decent experience,” she said.

“I can understand waiting three or four days,” Dan said. “But to go through the whole quarantine period and still not know is a little ridiculous.”

Dan has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema and continues to be cautious, although his wife “pretty much nursed me back to health,” he said.

“If I truly contracted it, I probably wouldn’t make it,” he said. “I’m high risk, to be sure.”

Metzler’s son, Dan’s daughter and Dan himself had their specimens collected at UPMC’s collection facility on Pleasant Valley Boulevard, according to Metzler and Dan.

The specimens from there are sent for analysis to Quest Diagnostics’ lab in Pittsburgh, according UPMC spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

“Quest (has) informed UPMC that, given soaring demand for testing, it is taking them and many other labs several days to report results, and they are working to improve testing times amid this national crisis,” Sampsell stated in an email.

UPMC has its own testing capabilities in Pittsburgh, but uses Quest for some of its collection sites, because of capacity limitations in its own lab, according to Sampsell.

“Demand for COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing continues to stress testing capacity and drive lengthy turnaround times,” stated Quest in a headline on a July 27 post on its website.

“Persistent high demand has strained our testing capacity and extended delays for test results (turnaround time),” the website stated. “As a result, our average turnaround time for reporting test results is now over two days for our priority 1 patients and 7 days for all other patients.”

The company has been adding capacity since early March, “but it will take some time to add more,” it stated.

The company can do 135,000 tests daily and is working to increase that to 150,000 by next week, according to the website.

One of the ways it hopes to do that is by “specimen pooling,” Quest stated.

With pooling, workers test samples from multiple individuals in the same vessel.

Only if there is a positive result do workers test additional specimens individually from the people whose samples comprised the pool, to determine the source or sources of the infection, according to an article in medicalxpress.com.

The method works best for batches of samples with a low percentage of positives, according to the article.

Gates’ practice sends its samples to LabCorp, and the results have been taking from three to five — and as long as eight — days to come back, he said.

“Almost all the labs are behind,” said Mark Taylor, director of the Blair County Emergency Management Department.

They’re backed up because of universal testing requirements for residents and staff of long-term care facilities, testing in hospitals for people going in for procedures, primary care doctors ordering tests and possibly employers wanting workers tested before they return from vacations, Taylor said.

Contributing to the problem in Pennsylvania have been large recent increases in the number of cases in other states — “like Florida, (which) continue(s) to let the virus burn,” wrote Department of Health spokeswoman Maggi Mumma in an email.

“These states are inundating the large national laboratories, creating a (longer) turnaround process,” she wrote.

The department has been trying to increase testing availability here, but that too can aggravate the problem, “creat(ing) a lag in reporting cases,” she said.

Even if it takes a long time, those who are awaiting a test should “self-quarantine if possible, (and) if they live with others they should try to stay in a separate bedroom, use a private bathroom, etc.,” Mumma wrote. “Make a list of people you visited or came into contact before you got tested.”

People awaiting results also should also wear masks and avoid contacting others as much as possible, she wrote.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

Cases reported at long-term care facilities:

Blair: 9 facilities with cases, 23 resident cases, 15 employee cases, 1 death

Bedford: 2 facilities with cases, 1 resident case, 1 employee case

Cambria: 5 facilities with cases, 17 resident cases,

6 employee cases

Centre: 5 facilities with cases, 33 resident cases,

19 employee cases, 8 deaths

Clearfield: 4 facilities with cases, 2 resident cases,

3 employee cases

Huntingdon: 2 facilities with cases, 1 resident case,

5 employee cases

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