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A nationwide coronavirus surge led to test result delays, but Anne Arundel officials say times have improved

Sharen Catlin, (left) RN School Nurses with Department of Health, Anne Arundel County, and Lauren Ryder, CNA (right) administer a Covis-19 test. Walk-up covid-19 testing at Geresbeck’s plaza (behind Sun Valley Liquors) 7931 Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard, Glen Burnie.
Sharen Catlin, (left) RN School Nurses with Department of Health, Anne Arundel County, and Lauren Ryder, CNA (right) administer a Covis-19 test. Walk-up covid-19 testing at Geresbeck’s plaza (behind Sun Valley Liquors) 7931 Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard, Glen Burnie. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette)

Amanda Gavagan and her husband John Collado have been waiting to hear the results of their COVID-19 tests for 16 days.

In that time, Gavagan’s symptoms have mostly come and gone while Collado, still sick with a lingering loss of smell, is not allowed to return to work. Neither is his small, in-person consulting team. They all wait in limbo.

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“I’ve lost hope,” Gavagan, of Glen Burnie, said. “It’s really frustrating because I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the last two weeks.”

Public health officials stress the importance of getting tested within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms, isolating until results are in, and then tracing positive cases and their contacts.

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But, in some cases, COVID-19 test results are taking so long to return that contact tracing efforts are moot. Commercial labs are slammed, processing thousands of tests each day as states across the country see new coronavirus outbreaks. Although labs like LabCorp have improved the backlog in recent days, some residents’ lives remain on hold waiting for answers.

Gavagan and three members of her family experienced a range of symptoms after being potentially exposed to the virus. She and Collado felt muscle aches, a sore throat, nausea, loss of smell and headaches while two of their children experienced milder symptoms.

They were tested at the Vehicle Emission Inspection Program site in Glen Burnie on July 15. Sixteen days have passed since Gavagan left her house. Collado, eager to return to work, got tested again at a clinic Tuesday through his private insurance.

He’s waiting for results.

The testing backlog also means some cases reported this week are from people who got tested a week or more ago. The potential exposure for those cases would have occurred roughly a week before for a virus that has an estimated two to 14 day incubation period.

Anne Arundel County sends COVID-19 tests for processing at LabCorp in Virginia and Mako Medical in North Carolina. The average wait time for results is five days; however, many results are taking seven days to come back, said Elin Jones, public information officer for Anne Arundel County’s health department.

While coronavirus cases surge in states like Texas, Arizona, California and Florida, so do the number of tests capturing those infections. Maryland officials report more than 20,000 tests have been administered daily across the state.

The county health department experienced a lag in reporting for the week that ended July 17, when the county tested more than 11,800 people and reached its goal of testing 2% of the population in one week. The department’s testing sites were aided by primary care, hospital, urgent care and pharmacy providers that administer COVID-19 tests.

During that time, overwhelmed commercial labs had an average turnaround time of seven to 10 days, said Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.

Anne Arundel County’s seven-day average rate of positive tests is 4.34%, which means the county is testing enough people that it’s finding infected individuals, including those with asymptomatic or mild symptoms.

Low lab turnaround time also makes contact tracing less effective because containment requires a quick response. Without test results, infected people could be unknowingly spreading the virus until they’re contacted and told to isolate.

“If the lab turnaround times are really stretching beyond about two to three days, each day diminishes the usefulness of contact tracing,” Kalyanaraman said.

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Some residents tested later in July report a quick and relatively seamless testing experience.

Tim Swann, of Pasadena, decided to get tested for COVID-19 at the VEIP site in Glen Burnie on July 22. Despite a line of cars, he was tested within 15 minutes and informed of a negative result four days later.

His wife, Lisa Shore, volunteers at a food distribution site across from Odenton Library. When the library hosted pop-up testing in June, she decided it was convenient and safe to get swabbed. Two days later, she was told her test was negative.

“I would have liked to have it back within a couple days or immediately, but I guess that’s not realistic right now,” Swann said. “I did hear rumors of people waiting extraordinary long times, but that wasn’t the case for me.”

Health workers retracing the steps of people infected with the virus are seeing a massive increase in the number of places and people connected to each positive case. This is usually the case for younger people sick with the virus, a demographic that’s contributed up to 55% of new cases in Maryland in July.

Anne Arundel County launched “Operation COVID Health Corps” this week to support the local contact tracing team that’s handling more cases with higher levels of activity.

The initiative will temporarily hire people left unemployed by pandemic closures to help with coronavirus interventions, including contact tracing, testing and health inspections.

As for Gavagan, she is still waiting.

“My number should have been reflected two weeks ago,” Gavagan said. “I do truly think I had it.”

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