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Coronavirus test results delayed because of increased demand nationally

Northwell Health has been an exception on turnaround

Northwell Health has been an exception on turnaround time for test results, said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director at Northwell Health Labs. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, as well as an increased demand for testing, has caused backups at some commercial labs, leading to wait periods of up to a week for results.

The number of coronavirus cases in New York have slowed, unlike in southern and western states, where record numbers are being recorded daily. But requests for COVID-19 tests have picked up, as thousands of New Yorkers return to work, youngsters head to summer camps and people get prescreenings for medical procedures.

With more testing being done nationally, three of the country’s largest labs — LabCorp, BioReference Laboratories and Quest Diagnostics — are processing a growing number of samples from pharmacies, urgent care centers and other sites. On Long Island, results come back quicker when tests are processed at local health systems and at labs contracted by the state, health care officials said. 

“It’s volume and capacity,” Quest Diagnostics spokeswoman Kimberly Gorode said. “We can run about 115,000 tests a day. ... It’s not lab-specific. It’s a national issue. We are just trying to keep up.”

New Jersey-based Quest, which serves Long Island medical providers and others across the country, has performed and reported results of about 6.6 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests since March. Labs such as Quest handle samples from all over, not just the surrounding region, Gorode said.

Quest's test processing turnaround now is four to six days, longer than the most recent three- to five-day wait time, Gorode said. Results for priority patients — hospital patients, preoperative patients in acute care settings and symptomatic health care workers — come in about one day, she said.

PM Pediatrics, which has eight locations on Long Island, performed 507 COVID-19 diagnostics tests between June 10 and June 23 in New York. Between June 24 and July 7, that number increased to 22,472.

“We are also seeing more requests for tests from people who need prescreening for medical procedures and dental procedures,” said Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser at PM Pediatrics. “People are getting back together with family members, but want to be tested first. All those things put together means the high-complexity labs are getting overwhelmed — despite the fact they are doing a yeoman’s effort.”

Johns said results, usually available in two to four days, can take up to a week now.

Waiting longer for results diminishes the impact of testing, said Dr. J.D. Zipkin, Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care’s associate medical director for New York City, where wait times are typically two to three days.

“After 10 days, it’s very, very difficult to go back and find every person you had contact with,” he said. “And by then, all those people have had contact with more people. It becomes nearly impossible to contact trace at that point.”

LabCorp, which has performed more than 6 million tests since March, can process more than 130,000 tests a day, but still has had to push back results from one to two days from specimen pickup to four to six days, the company said. That turnaround is quicker for hospitalized patients, the company said.

The wait for results is shorter — about 24 to 48 hours —  for tests collected at state-run testing sites and analyzed by the Wadsworth Center, according to the New York State Department of Health. The state has drive-thru testing sites at Jones Beach and Stony Brook University on Long Island.

In addition, the state created its own network of 215 labs, which can produce test results in three or fewer days, said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor. That network includes labs operated by several of the state’s largest health systems.

NYU-Langone, which operates NYU Winthrop in Mineola, has a lab in Manhattan capable of producing 1,500 COVID-19 tests per day, said Dr. Marc Adler, chief medical officer at NYU Winthrop. He said the health system purchased the equipment necessary to handle COVID-19 tests during the height of the pandemic in New York.

"We are not reliant on sending the tests out to another lab," Adler said. "Therefore, we are able to turn around results in 12 to 24 hours on all non-urgent tests."

Adler said patients who get results faster have "a peace of mind, because it's difficult not knowing."

He added that there are health care risks involved with waiting longer for test results.

"The patient may assume they have COVID, and be ignoring an issue that could be just as dangerous," Adler said. "For example, shortness of breath could also be heart failure. So we want to get results to people as quickly as possible."

NYU-Langone has rapid tests available for patients who are being admitted for emergency care.

New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state, is processing between 5,000 and 6,000 COVID-19 tests daily at its Lake Success lab, said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director at Northwell Health Labs.

Breining said the lab has been able to keep up with demand and turns results around within three days, although hospitalized patients get results in about four hours.

Mount Sinai South Nassau’s turnaround time for a test is usually about 12 hours, said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chair of the department of medicine at the Oceanside hospital. Glatt said the tests at their facility go to a Mount Sinai lab in Manhattan.

“The faster we know if someone is positive, the faster we can contact trace, the faster we can quarantine and the faster we can treat them,” Glatt said.