More testing is available for COVID-19, but getting results can take days or more

Miami Herald

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As testing ramps up across Florida with the addition of new drive-thru sites, many people are waiting days and in some cases more than a week to receive results confirming whether they have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Tests can take 24 to 48 hours to turn around once a sample is placed in an analyzing machine, experts say. But the long wait for results can be due to a number of factors, from the growing number of tests being processed during the pandemic to the type of machine that runs the test and whether the test involves a hospitalized patient or a police officer or firefighter, whose test are prioritized.

Most of the testing sites operated by the state in partnership with local governments and hospitals are advising people that results can take three to five days, though one local hospital official running a private testing site said he has been delivering results in under two days for some cases.

At the Broward County testing site in C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines, results are being delivered in about three days. But at Larkin Community Hospital’s private testing site in Hialeah, administrators say they are delivering results in 24 to 36 hours. And in Pompano Beach, the drive-thru site operated by Broward Health was promising results in three to seven days — before administrators suspended operations on Tuesday evening due to a shortage of supplies.

Infectious disease testing is a fairly sophisticated process that starts with collecting the sample, which then must be shipped to a lab where it is run through an analyzer machine before results are finally delivered to patients.

A breakdown anywhere along the line can cause a delay in the time it takes for patients to receive a result, said Jon Cohen, a physician and executive chairman for Bio-Reference Laboratories, a New Jersey-based lab that processes COVID-19 tests for Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami and the city of Miami’s drive-thru testing sites.

“It really depends on the efficiency of your lab,” Cohen said. “Some platforms are highly automated. Some are slower. Some you can run more than others. Those are all variables that go into how many tests you can run in 24 hours.”

Florida health officials report that more than 16,500 tests had been processed statewide as of 10 a.m. Tuesday through a combination of private laboratories, such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, as well as labs run by the health department and hospitals in Florida and elsewhere. Bio-Reference is also a state vendor, but as of Tuesday morning the company had processed only 399 tests for Florida.

Private labs have processed the most tests to date, with LabCorp and Quest running more than 6,000 tests. The state’s Bureau of Public Health labs in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville have processed more than 3,500 tests so far. Among South Florida hospitals, Memorial Regional South in Hollywood has run more than 1,300 tests.

Florida Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on test result wait times. The agency’s daily reports on COVID-19, which include numbers of people tested, states that, “Testing and reporting times vary among commercial and DOH laboratories.”

Bio-Reference can run as many as 20,000 COVID-19 tests a day at its New Jersey lab — more than the 16,500 tests that the Florida Department of Health has reported statewide as of Tuesday morning.

Bio-Reference’s ability stems from its commercial business. The company conducts more than 3,000 types of tests, from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases to genetic testing, Cohen said, and it owns high-capacity— known as “high throughput” — machines made by different manufacturers, which allows Bio-Reference to run tests on multiple “platforms.” That means tests created by multiple manufacturers can be run, increasing capacity.

Cohen said Bio-Reference is turning around COVID-19 tests in 24 to 48 hours, though for hospitals the processing time is less than a day.

“None of the state laboratories and none of the university laboratories are set up to do any of this,” Cohen said. “A hospital may do a hundred a day. A state may be able to do several hundred a day.”

In Florida, testing is still largely restricted to those who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, which recommend that tests be reserved for people with symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever and difficulty breathing. CDC guidelines recommend prioritizing first responders, healthcare workers, persons aged 65 or older with chronic conditions and those with compromised immune systems and history of international travel by cruise or to an affected area.

At the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, which opened a drive-thru testing site on March 21, testing criteria has been expanded from healthcare workers and first responders, such as police officers and firefighters, to include symptomatic persons age 65 and older, said Kim Prenter, a spokeswoman. No one else will be tested.

Prenter said the Hard Rock testing site conducted 737 tests on Sunday. On Monday, an additional 815 people were tested — and 230 were turned away because they did not meet criteria. The site opens at 9 a.m. daily and closes at about 3 p.m. after capacity is met. Prenter said testing is on a first-come, first-served basis, though she emphasized that criteria for those eligible to be tested is strictly enforced.

Those tested at the Hard Rock site are being told that wait times for results range from three to five days. “That’s going to vary,” Prenter said, “because of the labs and how much they’re getting and how quickly they can process it.”

Prenter said test samples are being shipped to a private lab in Miramar for processing, and that officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state health department will call individuals with the results.

The drive-thru site that opened at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines on March 20 tested more than 740 patients on the first day.

The site, which is staffed by Florida National Guard medics and nurses with Memorial Healthcare System, the public hospital network for South Broward, also is restricted to those who meet testing criteria. Those who want to be tested are asked to register by calling 954-276-4680 to make an appointment.

Local hospitals also have opened testing sites, including Larking Community Hospital’s Palm Springs campus in Hialeah, which charges $150 per test and limits tests to first responders, healthcare workers, certain officials who work for the cities of Miami and Hialeah, and symptomatic persons 65 and older.

When the drive-thru site first opened on March 20, Jack Michel, CEO of Larkin, said it would be able to process up to 500 tests a day. But Larkin has not yet met that goal because there were “glitches” with the online registration system, Michel said, and the hospital turned to taking appointments by phone.

“We have like 500 calls a day,” he said, “and we just haven’t been able to handle all the calls.”

As of Tuesday morning, the fifth day of operation, Larkin had set up a website to register people who want to be tested.

The Larkin site has reported testing 382 people, with 40 positive results and 245 negative results and 97 pending results. Michel said positive results have been available in less than two days but that negative test results take longer.

“So far, the positive ones have been 24 to 36 hours,” Michel said. “The negative ones have taken up to four days from what I’ve seen. Usually the negatives are the ones that lag because they do several tests to confirm.”

In Pompano Beach, Broward Health, the public hospital system for North Broward, suspended its drive-thru site on Tuesday, five days after it had opened. Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman, said the site conducted more than 1,500 tests during that time. Samples were shipped to a private lab, she said, and results are promised in three to seven days.

Smith said Broward Health had to suspend the site due to a shortage of supplies.

“Demand was such that we’re actively working to get more supplies,” she said. “We understand the demand and the need for it.”

As more testing kits and supplies arrive in South Florida, additional testing sites have opened in Miami-Dade, including a drive-thru station at Marlins Park in Little Havana. The site will test people for free and promises to deliver results in one to two days, according to public officials, though it has not yet opened.

The Marlins Park site will run about 350-400 tests a day. The test will be available for Miami-Dade County residents who will make appointments through 311, the county’s government services line.

The city of Miami on Monday announced home testing for coronavirus for residents above the age of 65 who can’t leave their homes and who fear they may have contracted the COVID-19 disease.

Miami has 2,000 test kits for the effort. The tests will be restricted to homebound seniors who either have COVID-19 symptoms or think they were exposed to the coronavirus.. The city issued a press release saying those who meet the criteria can call 305-960-5050 and make an appointment for home testing.

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