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Test results too long delayed

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Testing for COVID-19 has increased nationwide, but delays in processing those tests -- and providing the results -- are keeping some away from work or potentially putting asymptomatic people out in public to spread the virus.

A national program to increase test processing and turnaround times is desperately needed if the coronavirus is to be contained. White House officials have acknowledged the need for quicker turnaround times; what's needed now is federal funding to increase laboratory testing capacity.

Laboratories that process the tests are being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers as total infections across the country have now topped the 4 million mark. Officials estimate 770,000 tests are being performed daily. With some labs taking weeks to process tests, health experts fear asymptomatic people who are not self-quarantining while awaiting results could be spreading the virus.

And those who are isolating are often missing significant work days -- and paychecks -- while sometimes waiting weeks for results that come back negative.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the country has become obsessed with how many tests are being done per day, but it is overlooking the more important turnaround time.

"The question is how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is properly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned," Dr. Frieden said.

Health experts have said from the start of the pandemic testing and contact tracing are keys in controlling the virus, but the delays in obtaining test results make tracing all the more difficult or too late to be effective. Officials estimate if turnaround times extend beyond several days, the results can be useless because the person tested may have already infected scores of people in the interim.

The CDC issued guidelines recommending states lifting restrictions have testing turnaround times of under four days. That has been a difficult -- if not impossible -- target to hit for most states.

States should adopt a plan supported by Dr. Frieden and other health experts to report testing turnaround times, just as they report the number of new cases. It's an important metric, along with the total number of new cases, recent deaths and percentage of tests that come back positive. The turnaround time is key to making contact tracing an effective mitigation tool.

Federal officials are reportedly working with testing companies to ramp up the number of tests they can perform. That needs to be a priority with an immediate funding commitment.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

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