With coronavirus cases climbing in Maryland throughout July, labs throughout the state have reportedly been flooded with new tests, causing a wait for test results that can reach as long as 15 days for those getting tested — including in Carroll County, health officials say.
Carroll County Health Department spokespeople have said that some COVID-19 test results over the past month came in over two weeks after the testing date.
“Test results have been delayed in many areas of the country because many labs process their tests in regional lab facilities, which have been overwhelmed with tests from areas where there have been spikes in cases and testing,” Ed Singer, Carroll County health officer, said in an email July 31.
The week starting July 26 set a record for new COVID-19 cases among members of the community not living in nursing homes or other congregate living facilities. That week’s total, 109 community cases, broke the record of 97 that was set just the week before. The high mark before that was set the week of April 5, in the beginning phase of the pandemic, with 60.
Amid those recent upticks in cases, the health department has not been satisfied with the lab they were working with through the state system, according to spokesperson Maggie Kunz.
However, according to Kunz, the health department did work with the state to transition to a different lab — and they did as of Aug. 4. She declined to disclose the name of either lab.
Kunz said the department has seen an improvement in turnaround time with the first batch of tests that were sent to the new lab.
Singer told the county commissioners in their Aug. 6 meeting that the new lab generally has a 24-to-36-hour turnaround on test results. Aug. 5 was the first day they used the new lab; after submitting specimens to be tested around noon, results were returned the following morning.
“That’s going to make a huge difference,” he said, in deciding on a timely basis who’s sick and who needs to quarantine, though he doesn’t necessarily expect every day to have as quick a response as that first day. “It’s going to make a big difference in our community,” he said.
In reference to that speedy first day of testing with the new lab, Kunz said, “We do not expect this will always be the case, but we think our results should now take no more than three to five days, and sometimes less.”
Carroll Hospital has also been conducting COVID-19 tests and has not run into issues regarding turnaround time, according to spokesperson Simone Lindsay.
“Carroll Hospital is not seeing an increase in COVID-19 testing volume at this time,” she said.
She noted that the hospital performs a limited number of in-house tests for emergency patients while all other community tests are sent to LabCorp, one of the largest clinical laboratory networks in the country.
According to Lindsay, an average of 500 to 600 tests are sent to the lab weekly, and results are usually returned in three to five days.
However, the testing site at the Carroll County Agriculture Center being run by the health department is averaging about 250 tests a week and results seem to be taking longer, according to the health department. (Testing is scheduled to resume at that site Aug. 11, after being temporarily relocated to Friendship Valley Elementary School.)
Some tests have come back sooner, in five to 10 days after testing, but some results had taken as long as two weeks to appear in the system, Kunz said before the department switched to the new lab. However, even five to 10 days is not acceptable because it becomes difficult to do any sort of significant contact tracing if the results come back after a week, Singer said in the email.
The normal quarantine time for those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is two weeks, and confusion can ensue when results have not been returned even after two weeks.
“By the time we are able to talk with a positive case, they may be finished with their isolation period, and their contacts will be past their quarantine time, so we are not able to prevent further spread,” Kunz said.
According to Kunz, contact tracing efforts remain challenging as some people are declining to participate.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s the best way for people who are positive for COVID-19 to help protect others, by working with us to figure out who they were in close contact with while they were infectious,” she said.
However, she said the department is working on providing support to contacts by helping them gain access to resources they might need to quarantine safely. They are also working with some people to share their stories with the public to encourage others to comply.
A health department employee coordinating its contact tracing did not respond to a request for comment.
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Contact tracing, deemed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention an effective took to help slow the spread of COVID-19, is used by health departments to identify people who might have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. It involves identifying potentially infected individuals, determining who they have been in close contact with, and asking them to stay home and quarantine.
On Aug. 4, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland would be joining with six other states to negotiate the purchase of antigen tests, a type of COVID-19 test that can detect proteins associated with the virus and return results in as little as 20 minutes, according to Hogan’s office.
Hogan hopes these tests can address the long testing shortages and delays.
“With severe shortages and delays in testing and the federal administration attempting to cut funding for testing, the states are banding together to acquire millions of faster tests to help save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Hogan said in the statement.
According to Singer, health departments both across the state and nationwide have reported long turnaround times due to an increase in the number of tests being conducted.
“Some labs have expanded capacity and improved turn-around times,” Singer said in the email, “but there are a couple of laboratories that are still taking longer than a week.”
Speaking to the commissioners, he said he was glad the county was able to work with the state to partner with a lab that, he hopes, will result in quicker testing results.