In the drive-thru at CVS Pharmacy in Beloit, Janesville bartender Kendra Hoskins took a COVID-19 nasal swab test.
When she finished, she sealed the swab in a test tube and opened a storage box in the drive-thru that collects COVID-19 test samples before they’re shipped to a laboratory.
Hoskins said the drop box was so clogged with other people’s test samples that she had to cram in her test kit to make it fit.
That was on July 8.
Hoskins said she waited and waited for test results that she initially thought she would get in three days. A week passed, then 10 days. Still no word.
While she waited, Hoskins opted to self-isolate and stay home from her job managing the bar at the East Point Sportz Pub—a move that scuttled her paycheck and left the bar scrambling to cover her daytime shift.
On Wednesday—14 days after she’d gotten tested at CVS—Hoskins’ results finally showed up through an app the pharmacy instructed her to set up on her phone. She had tested negative.
Hoskins’ experience comes as local and state health officials are acknowledging that COVID-19 testing has become bogged down at some laboratories, mostly because of a nationwide spike in novel coronavirus cases and an increase in testing.
“It’s good to know, finally,” Hoskins said. “But it was a stressful time. I knew I’d have to wait for test results. But two weeks?”
In an email to The Gazette this week, state Department of Health Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt explained the logjam in testing:
“As the increased spread of illness happens across the country, we are seeing significantly slower turnaround times at the national reference laboratories, including those that pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart use, and that health care providers use to supplement their own testing capacity.”
The bottleneck, health officials acknowledge, means some people—often those without access to a regular doctor or health care network—are waiting days, if not weeks, to get test results returned.
That has potentially negative ripple effects as public health officials work to track, quantify and respond to the ongoing rise in coronavirus cases.
Johns Hopkins University estimates the virus has infected 15 million people globally. In the U.S., more than 140,000 people have died from COVID-19 illnesses, according to a recent Associated Press report.
A Morgan Stanley biotechnology analyst estimated this week that an average of 65,000 people get infected every day in the U.S. The analyst predicted that if the nation can’t wrestle down the coronavirus now, the transmission rate could ramp up to 150,000 new cases a day by fall.
The apparent buckling in virus testing capability at some labs is just the latest complication for small businesses such as Hoskins’ East Point, and it comes just over a month after businesses began reopening after a two-month shutdown in spring.
At East Point, all bartenders and cooks wear face masks, even if some patrons don’t. Hoskins said she learned in early July that an outside contractor—a supplier she meets with in person routinely—apparently was infected with COVID-19.
Hoskins said she immediately bowed out of work, got tested at CVS, and then spent two weeks hunkering at home waiting for results. She kept her teenage daughter home, too, to limit the possibility of exposing others to a virus that Hoskins wasn’t sure she was infected with.
According to an AP report this week, national health analysts are trying to find ways to limit or delay “low-priority” tests—those for people who show no symptoms or weren’t exposed to another infected person for an extended period of time.
That could ease testing backlogs in some parts of the country. But it might not ease the minds of people stuck in testing purgatory, waiting to learn whether or not they’re infected.
Hoskins, 32, is like many younger people who don’t necessarily have a regular doctor. That means they might not get medical referrals for quicker-turnaround testing that uses more localized labs.
Workers such as Hoskins might not know what to sweat more: their own health or that of co-workers, family or customers who they might have had contact with before they became aware they were potentially exposed.
East Point owner Sharen Hoskins, Kendra’s mother, filled in for Kendra at the bar for the two weeks Kendra took off. Both went about their days with blinders on when it came to the status of Kendra’s health—and what the business should do to protect its workers and others.
“I think we’ve got a problem,” Sharen Hoskins said. “You read that Major League Baseball players are going to get tested practically every day. But regular people have gotta wait two weeks for their results?
“And I think if they’re going try to open up the schools again, and everything else … can you imagine if little Johnny is sick, and the school sends him home and says, ‘You know, you need to get him tested and get the whole family tested.’ And then the whole family and the kid and the school and everybody else has to sit around and wait for two weeks or longer for a test result? That is a problem.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get tested if they have been directly exposed to a person with a confirmed COVID-19 infection. They also should self-quarantine for 14 days regardless of whether they’ve had any symptoms, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
For people who are tested, the CDC offers a test results window of “less than four days” for states or regions that are considered virus hot spots.
With COVID-19, a highly contagious virus that can quickly and quietly spread, a two-week or even weeklong lag in testing can have serious implications for public health, Goodsitt wrote.
“The value of the test diminishes steadily with time, and those tests over a week old can be quite concerning,” she said. “It means that we aren’t interviewing positive cases as quickly, which means that we in turn are not identifying their contacts quickly. Therefore, those that have had contact with a positive case may not be taking the precautions of quarantining as soon as we would want.”
Goodsitt said the state health department urges people to notify their county health department if it takes longer than five days to get test results.
But Rock County health officials say it’s not easy or straightforward to solve such a conundrum.
Jessica Turner, a spokeswoman for the Rock County Public Health Department, said while local testing sites still average less than a three-day turnaround on COVID-19 tests, the health department is “aware” that some local test providers face longer wait times.
Turner said the health department and the state can work with community testing sites to toggle between different third-party and state-run labs to try to spread out the volume of COVID-19 tests. But she said it isn’t as easy for the county to work closely with some large chain pharmacies and the out-of-state labs they might use.
Turner said it often takes several phone calls from residents who are reporting delays before the county learns of the problem.
And local testing sites can’t always pinpoint the pace at which private labs will process tests.
A private lab that has extra capacity one day might get bogged down the next day with a glut of tests to process, Turner said.
“It’s hard to know where the tests are being sent from,” she said. “We might know Provider X is sending in 20 tests a day to a specific lab, but we wouldn’t necessarily know who else is sending tests in” or what the volume is.