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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Turnaround Time For COVID-19 Tests Grows Longer, Hampering Control Efforts

Russell Tate
United Nations COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 cases are still increasing around the Mountain West, and wait times to get test results are getting longer for many.

In Montana, there’s been recorded wait times of up to two weeks. In Arizona, some have been longer.

Carl Bergstrom is a biology professor at the University of Washington, and he says that kind of delay severely hampers our ability to control the virus.

“You need to be able to get the results back within the infectious period, which is a medium length of about seven days – and, ideally, much faster than that,” he said.

That’s important for a number of reasons, Bergstrom said, ranging from people being able to get treatment for COVID-19, to tracking the outbreak, to stopping the virus’ spread from asymptomatic individuals. 

Most states in the region are taking less than a week to produce results, but they’re having trouble keeping testing times down to one or two days because they’re being strained by private partners. Those partners are working with national testing companies that are seeing increasing demands for tests, supply chain challenges and subsequent backlogs.

“Because of this, the state lab has experienced an uptick in samples, resulting in a longer turnaround time,” the Colorado State Information Center said in an email. “Right now, our turnaround time is about four days.”

That information center says Colorado is adding more state testing capacity to help, but it can’t control the national influx hampering its private partners.

Idahoans’ wait times actually dropped from 4.5 days to 1.4 days on the four days leading to July 18th, but nearly half of test results coming from out-of-state labs are still taking more than three days to reach patients. That’s similar to what Wyoming is seeing, where state officials say in-state tests are taking one or two days, but tests through private labs have taken as long as seven days to return results.

And in Utah, its average wait time for a test has held steady at around three days, but Utah Department of Health spokesperson Tom Hudachko says that still isn’t fast enough.

“The quicker that we can identify a positive case, the quicker that public health can reach out to that individual, and get them isolated and get people who they might have been close contacts with quarantined,” he said. 

Bergstrom says there are ways to get more people tested and get tests faster, adding “it doesn’t require science fiction to do this. We’ve got the techniques, we know how to do it. We’ve just got to solve the infrastructure problems and make it happen.”

He specifically pointed to a new tactic called “pool testing” where a group of people is tested together, which reduces the number of tests needed and can rule out large groups in a short amount of time.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved that new tactic on July 18 for major testing company Quest Diagnostics on an emergency basis.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.