Why does it take so long to get COVID-19 test results in Silicon Valley?
Photo courtesy of Chad Minnis.

Chad Minnis took a coronavirus test days after his baby was born to ensure he wouldn’t get her – or the rest of his family – sick.

Fourteen days later, the 32-year-old still had no idea whether he’s carrying the deadly virus. While he received several generic emails apologizing for the inconvenience and promising an update, there was radio silence about whether he was sick. Officials had no explanation for the situation – not even to say they lost the swab or there’s a backlog.

“I’ve been checking my phone nonstop hoping for an answer so my life can move on,” Minnis told San José Spotlight. “It’s so frustrating to see politicians patting themselves on the back for how many tests they’ve done, and I’m just sitting here like, what good are tests if you don’t get results? And what good are results if they come weeks late?”

Long wait times for COVID-19 test results have plagued the Santa Clara County for weeks now, leading to frustration, uncertainty and criticism.

On Tuesday, Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg sharply questioned county health leaders about the growing delays and demanded answers about what to tell her constituents about the wait times.

“What is my response?” Ellenberg asked. “What do you recommend is a safe and appropriate response to people asking me – which they do – how long does it take to get a test result back?”

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Santa Clara County COVID-19 testing officer, demonstrates the less invasive testing swabs now available for free at PAL Stadium in East San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the Santa Clara County COVID-19 testing officer, said the county-run system calls people who test positive between 24 to 48 hours after the results come back. Negatives are notified either by email or snail mail, which he said ranges from taking two to six days to get to mailboxes.

When Ellenberg pressed if it’s safe for people to assume a test is negative after 48 hours, Fenstersheib said the range can be up to six days.

The delays in test results – even if they’re negative – hinders the ability for people to safely resume activities and impact public health officials’ responsibility to locate and respond to outbreaks locally.

“This is a critical situation,” Dr. Andrew Diamond, chief medical officer at One Medical, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “What people are looking to do is know whether they need to modify their behavior. They need to know that quickly.”

A growing backlog

When Minnis first decided to get tested, a quick Google search displayed local options, including Verily where he got tested, and said test results would come quickly.

Minnis said the delay was frustrating primarily because he didn’t know what to do next to keep his family safe.

“I don’t even know who to be mad at – myself for picking the wrong company to go through, local politicians or federal (leaders),” Minnis said. “Everyone’s quick to point the finger at the other person, but I don’t care who’s to blame, I just want the problem fixed.”

One reason for late test results is the number of tests being conducted in the South Bay, and across the country as cases continue to rapidly rise.

Laboratories are feeling increased pressure to maintain high volumes of throughput, especially as certain sectors of the economy have reopened.

According to Fenstersheib, local testing capabilities have also increased dramatically in recent months.

From June 27 to July 17, the county administered 38,316 tests – 35% of testing performed countywide. From July 8 to July 14, the County of Santa Clara Health System completed 15,621 tests, while Verily performed 1,428 during the same time frame.

A total of 96,183 tests have been taken countywide since January, Fenstersheib said.

Graphic courtesy of the County of Santa Clara.

While tests are happening, they’re no help to the public or public health officials until those test results come back.

The average turnaround time for Stanford Healthcare to get results back to residents is 1 to 1.5 days, with 90% of tests complete within 3 days, according to Dr. Christina Kong, medical director and chief of pathology for Stanford Health Care, who also serves on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force.

A spokesperson from Verily said they have been dealing with delays through one of their partner labs, Quest, who recently announced that the average turnaround time for “Priority 1” patients was more than two days, while all others waited on average seven or more days.

“We recognize that the timely return of results is critical, and we are working with our partners to optimize our system where we can to support greater efficiency in return of testing results,” Kathleen Parkes, Verily communications manager, said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “We’re sorry that community members are experiencing delays, and we are hopeful that return of results will go back to our previous average of closer to 2 days and up to 5 days in the future.”

Quest noted that a small subset of patients may experience wait times of up to two weeks.

Some had better luck with county-run testing sites than private companies, such as Verily, which is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

Finally — a resolution

Minutes after an email popped into his inbox late Thursday evening, Minnis finally had relief – he had tested negative. The 14-day nightmare was over.

Minnis said his negative test result was a weight off his shoulders. He immediately started making plans for when his young son – who was staying with other family members, including his grandfather – could meet the family’s latest addition.

While Minnis learned about the testing backlogs and delays the hard way, he’s now one step closer to why he took a coronavirus test two weeks ago.

“The only thing that I’m hoping for is that my son gets to come home soon and meet his sister,” Minnis said. “I’d be happy with that. I’d still be frustrated but, at least I’d feel like home was more ‘home.’”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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