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HHS official says turnaround times for COVID-19 tests are faster than reported

HHS Assistant Secretary Admiral Brett Giroir says the media is incorrectly reporting how long it takes for tests to be returned.

Mallory Hackett, Associate Editor

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty ImagesCredit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senior officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are adamant that COVID-19 tests' turnaround times are faster than what is being reported in the media.

"I continue to see reporting incorrectly in the media that [says] testing turnaround times are routinely 10 to 14 days. That's just not correct," said Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for HHS, in a media call Thursday. "That could be an outlier, it could happen under certain circumstances, but that really is not correct."

Over the past month, publications such as NBC News and The Hill have reported long wait times for COVID-19 test results to be returned to patients. In some cases, people had to wait more than two weeks to get results back, according to NBC News.

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Giroir said that half of all tests are conducted in point-of-care settings, which can be returned in as quickly as 24 hours.

The other half, he said, are sent to commercial labs, such as LabCorp. Earlier this week, LabCorp reported that as of July 26, the average time to deliver results for the COVID-19 swab test is two to three days from the date of specimen pickup. For the COVID-19 antibody test, the average delivery of test results is one to three days from the date of specimen pickup.

Labcorp supported Giroir's statement that testing turnaround times typically do not exceed two weeks. However, the company said the most common cause for delay is inaccurate or out-of-date personal information on record with healthcare providers or in the LabCorp patient portal.

Giroir also noted that commercial lab testing times have improved recently.

"Over the past month, the percent of tests that were completed within three days by commercial labs was 45%, but in the last seven days, that's over 56%," he said. "So we're seeing an improvement week over week."

WHY THIS MATTERS

Many public health experts agree that widespread testing is one of the key ways to lower the infection rates of COVID-19.

Testing allows health officials to better understand how common the virus is in their area and helps guide control measures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, if test results are delayed, it increases the risk that people will unknowingly infect others.

When tests are slow, hospitals see increases in new patients whose infection status is unknown and must be treated as if they are positive.

A report from the Office of the Inspector General found that delays in tests created challenges in hospitals such as patients unnecessarily taking up beds while waiting for test results, hospital staff using PPE when they may not have needed to, and staff not knowing if they were exposed to the virus or not.

THE LARGER TREND

The CDC reports that more than 52 million tests have been completed in the U.S., with 10% of them coming back positive.

Earlier in July, states submitted their testing plans to CDC for July through December. The plans were required to detail how a minimum of 2% of their population will be tested each month, as well as a plan to increase that percentage this fall.

LabCorp recently developed a way to increase its testing capacity using pooled testing. This method allows for multiple samples to go into a single test, and then following up with individual tests should the group be positive. The platform may test up to five samples per pool, and 25 specimens per matrix.

ON THE RECORD

"We are continuing to improve turnaround times, but the thought of it being routinely 10 to 14 days – it's just not true," Giroir said. "I think that sends a bad public health message that is contrary to the goals we all have of improving our infection rates."

Twitter: @HackettMallory
Email the writer: mhackett@himss.org