GLEN BURNIE, Md. — John and Debi Jasen went to a rally a couple of weeks ago. Out of an abundance of caution, the two decided to get tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site in Glen Burnie.
John called the process easy, but the hard part has been waiting on his results.
“The disturbing part is that it’s now almost exactly a week later and we still don’t have testing results," he said. “Really the only thing we have to go on right now is...at the moment we are not showing symptoms.”
As cases of the virus continue to surge across the country, wait times for test results have slowed down tremendously. For high priority patients, the wait time has essentially remained the same, which is 24-48 hours. But, for people who aren't showing any symptoms like John and Debi, the wait times could be seven days or up to two weeks.
The slowdown is due to the recent uptick in cases nationwide that have led to an increase in demand for testing. Commercial labs across the country are being inundated with tests, which is creating a backlog.
"It's a major problem and frankly totally absurd that we are seeing delays in testing results," said Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore city health commissioner and current George Washington professor. "What if you are the sole wage earner in your home and you're going to be forgoing wages and you could lose your job just by waiting two weeks for test results that could very well turnout to be negative."
Dr. Wen said the delays in tests make them seemingly ineffective. She said the issues also make it harder for states to control the virus.
“It's essentially worthless if we find out in a week or two weeks for the purposes of contact tracing because by then it’s too late," she said. "It's so critical to our public health efforts to have prompt testing that comes back ideally within 24 hours, but at the maximum 48 hours.
She also said it's important for even people who aren't showing symptoms to get a test in a timely manner.
"Forty percent or even more of coronavirus cases are transmitted by people who don't have symptoms at all, but are still actively infecting others," she said. "We need to have enough surveillance testing, and we need to be able to test individuals who want to test because for some people getting a test is instrumental in them being able to return to work."
At a Wednesday news conference, Governor Larry Hogan addressed the delays, calling them a "concern". Gov. Hogan said a new state lab at the University of Maryland-Baltimore could bring some much needed relief to commercial labs and Marylanders waiting on test results.
"Unlike many of the commercial labs, which are experiencing these serious delays, we are able to turn around these highly sensitive Korean test in our new lab...turn them around in 24-48 hours," Gov. Hogan said.
He said the lab is processing "a couple thousand tests", some of which were received from South Korea three months ago. Currently, the lab is processing tests for high priority patients. But, the lab could be used for people who aren't considered high priority, if necessary.
Gov. Hogan also mentioned a shortage of tests, which is also an issue due to the increase an demand for testing. He said the 500,000 tests he purchased from South Korea could be gone in the next couple of months because of the surge in cases. If need be, he said he will purchases more to get the state through the flu season.
Dr. Wen and other public health experts are calling on the federal government to implement a national strategy on testing.
"We really need to have far more testing, that's widespread, that's free [and] accessible," she said.
As for Jasen and his wife, he’s social distancing as much as he can as he waits for his results. But, his concern is what about the others who aren’t.
"Somebody is walking around spreading virus and they don’t know it. That puts more people at risk," he said.