The current spike in COVID-19 cases is stressing the testing system across the country.
As the virus spreads at unprecedented rates, more Americans are seeking COVID-19 tests. But in recent days, companies that make the tests and the supplies needed for them are struggling to keep up with demand.
"Those companies were operating on an allocation basis, and that just means that basically everything they make is going out the door," said Kelly Wroblewski, the Director of Infectious Disease Programs at the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "There is no reserve, so there's an increased demand in a lab for testing. There's no more reagent to be had, so to meet that demand, that lab has to use a different manufacturer's test."
Wroblewski adds that along with issues in getting supplies, officials are also short on human resources — there is only so much lab capacity and only so many trained people to conduct the tests.
The American Clinical Laboratory Association says the surge in demand for testing means some labs could reach or exceed their current testing capacities soon — meaning it could take longer for patients to get PCR test results back.
Wroblewski says that it can take currently take anywhere from 24 hours to a week to get PCR test results back.
With antigen tests, patients can get results back in less than 30 minutes. There is currently enough of a supply for antigen tests, but not all facilities offer them.
Both lab groups stress that COVID-19 testing is important, but patients should be strategic.
"There's been a lot of emphasis put on testing, but testing is only one piece of the puzzle," Wroblewski said. "It gives you some information, and if you're not going to do anything with that information — whether it be targeted closures. whether it be staying home and isolating — we're not going to stop the spread of disease."
As far as getting more tests, it's going to take a while. Wroblewski says it could take up to six months or more to increase production capacity significantly. Labs don't expect to see a ramp-up in supplies until early 2021.