Colorado officials seek to increase COVID-19 testing following delays in results

Colorado officials are once again seeking ways to aggressively ramp up state testing for COVID-19 after a national backlog at private labs has left residents waiting days — and sometimes even more than a week — for results.

The number of new coronavirus cases in the state has increased for five consecutive weeks, and that rise in infections is highlighting gaps that continue to persist in the state’s ability to test for COVID-19 more than four months into the pandemic.

The testing difficulties in Colorado come as a national surge in coronavirus cases is straining laboratories across the U.S. and there is a shortage in supplies. The situation echoes the early days of the outbreak when the spread of the disease far outpaced the ability to test for it.

“While we would all be better off if there was a national strategy and effective management of supplies, that’s not the world we live in,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a Thursday news conference.

He said tests are “almost worthless” when it takes as many as 10 days to get results back.

On Thursday, state health officials announced 616 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of infections since March to 42,314 Hospitalizations for the coronavirus, which had increased in recent weeks, have fallen for several days, and on Thursday dropped to 237 people from 247 individuals the day before.

Another two people were confirmed Thursday to have died directly from COVID-19, bringing the total to 1,645. Since March, 1,786 people have died with the disease in their system.

During the week of July 12, the state lab and private companies processed more than 62,000 tests for Colorado — the highest weekly total yet. That’s up from the more than 43,200 tests during the week of June 14.

The state also has seen the number of tests coming back positive increase from 3.14% to 5.07% during that same period, meaning there is more transmission of COVID-19 and the increase in cases is not just the result of more testing.

Wait times “not acceptable”

With the large laboratory companies, such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, reporting long wait times for results, Colorado is pursuing other ways to increase testing capacity via the state lab, health systems and private firms, Polis said.

For example, he said, Colorado has added a third, overnight shift at the state lab. The state also has agreements with Children’s Hospital Colorado, National Jewish Health and other private labs, including Biodesix and Unipath, to process tests.

COVID-19 basics

Symptoms of COVID-19 — including fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, and nausea — can appear between two and 14 days after exposure, the CDC says.

Public health recommendations:

— Wear masks that cover your mouth and nose

— Stay at least 6 feet from others

— Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

More guidelines: covid19.colorado.gov

Colorado expects another 300,000 tests and 800,000 swab kits to arrive in the next eight weeks, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“We know that we cannot count on these national lab partners that are now showing nine-, 10-, 11-day turnarounds,” Polis said during the briefing, adding that such wait times are “not acceptable.”

Quest Diagnostics did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for LabCorp was not available for comment Thursday.

“The problem is that the number of tests being asked to be performed each week is growing faster than the capacity that we can build,” LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter told CNBC earlier this week.

Reversal of progress

LabCorp, which said in a news release that it takes three to five days for results, processes tests for Denver’s drive-thru site at the Pepsi Center, one of the largest testing sites in the metro area.

The Pepsi Center site has experienced such a large increase in demand for testing that city officials have placed a cap of 2,000 tests per day to avoid overwhelming labs and further delaying results.

For those who go to get tested at the Pepsi Center, it can take anywhere between one and 12 days to get results, said Kelli Christensen, spokeswoman for the city Department of Public Safety, in an email.

Not everywhere has such long waits for COVID-19 testing. Some health providers, such as Kaiser Permanente, can get test results within 24 hours. Meanwhile, at the state lab, it takes on average four days for results, according to Colorado’s health department.

The state lab runs test samples for long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, detention centers, jails, prisons, hospitals and some of the community testing sites across Colorado, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

However, the recent delays in test results is a stark reversal of the progress state and city officials had seemingly made in increasing testing capacity.

Just a few weeks ago, the average turnaround time for test results was one to two days. And last month, the Pepsi Center began testing people who don’t have symptoms of the novel coronavirus but believe they may have been exposed to someone with the illness.

The move to test those who are asymptomatic coincided with city officials’ push to have the thousands of people protesting police brutality in Denver get tested.

But it also indicated an expansion in testing, which at the start of the pandemic was so limited that even those with symptoms struggled to get tested and state officials at the time believed the number of confirmed cases was well below the actual number of Coloradans with COVID-19.

Testing without symptoms

Despite the recent delays in results, the Pepsi Center testing site is still testing those without COVID-19 symptoms, Christensen said.

“We are in conversations with the state on how to best meet the needs of the community going forward,” she said.

But not everyone thinks those without symptoms should be tested, especially while there is a national backlog of tests and supplies shortages.

“It’s only going to further delay the test results coming back for people who are symptomatic,” said Ben Wiederholt, chief executive officer of Stride Community Health Center, adding, “If the turnaround times weren’t the problem and the challenges aren’t what they are, I would fully support that strategy.”

Stride Community Health offers COVID-19 testing to those with symptoms, along with hospital workers and other first responders.

The center is also experiencing delays, including as much as two weeks for results. Stride, which sends samples to Quest Diagnostics, is looking for other ways to get quicker test results, Wiederholt said.

“The value of the testing drops with each day that a person doesn’t get their results,” he said.

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