After spiking a fever and suffering an intense cough, Stuart Nissenbaum said he was tested for the coronavirus at a local drive-thru screening site on March 18.
Yet over a week later, the 28-year-old from the Chicago suburb of Long Grove said he’s still waiting for test results.
“I still have nothing,” said Nissenbaum, who has quarantined himself in his bedroom to avoid the possibility of infecting his older parents, who live in the same home. “I have literally been locked in one room of my house, not knowing if I have it, so I don’t give it to them.”
Nissenbaum is one of several Chicago-area patients who described lengthy waits -- sometimes eight days or longer -- to learn if they’ve contracted the highly contagious new virus.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not immediately return requests for comment. But some medical experts conjecture that labs nationwide are overwhelmed by a recent surge in COVID-19 testing.
"Labs, people on the front line, are in great stress right now,” said Dr. Robert Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “They are way over their head.”
Gallo, who co-discovered the virus that causes AIDS years ago, said the COVID-19 tests being used now in the United States should be completed in three days. If results are taking much longer, he said, it could be that labs can’t keep up with the pace of testing.
Similar lag times appear to be occurring across the country. In Oregon, some people reported waiting six days to nearly two weeks to learn if they were infected, according to The Oregonian. The California Department of Public Health said that of approximately 77,800 tests conducted statewide as of Wednesday, 57,400 were still pending.
Officials in Louisiana said patients there have had to wait as long as seven days to learn if they have the virus, The Advocate in Baton Rouge reported.
“Testing centers are being overwhelmed with their ability to turn tests around and the pure volume of tests coming through,” one Baton Rouge hospital official told the newspaper.
The nation has struggled to provide coronavirus testing since the first cases emerged in the United States earlier this year. While Illinois was the first state to begin testing in February, many others had to wait several weeks before they had access to reliable tests.
Local hospitals have also cited a national shortage of testing kits, as well as the nasal swabs and chemical reagents required to test for the virus, which has sickened more than 2,500 and caused the deaths of 26 in Illinois as of Thursday.
Some medical providers have a quicker testing turnaround time than others.
NorthShore University HealthSystem, which has five hospitals, is typically delivering COVID-19 test results to patients in about 24 hours, said Dr. Karen Kaul, chair of the NorthShore Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
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The faster results are in part because NorthShore performs its tests in-house rather than sending them to outside laboratories, she said.
After a patient is swabbed, the specimen is then transported to NorthShore’s lab at its Evanston hospital. The actual test takes about four to six hours, but specimens aren’t necessarily tested as soon as they come in. NorthShore tries to wait until it has a certain number of specimens it can test as a batch, to use lab staff and resources efficiently, Kaul said.
NorthShore is currently performing about 1,000 tests a day, using a test it developed as well as one made by north suburban-based Abbott Laboratories.
Expedient results help the hospital system make decisions about which patients to keep isolated and how to best protect its staff, she said.
Amita Health, which has 19 hospitals in Illinois, also moved to in-house testing this week via its lab in Hammond, Indiana. Before, it was sometimes taking a week or longer to get results to patients, said Dr. Stuart Marcus, Amita’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer. He suspects that was probably because of the sheer volume of specimens the labs were receiving.
Now, he said, Amita is informing patients of results within 24 hours and processing about 400 tests a day.
Knowing who’s positive and who’s not more quickly “is an enormous benefit to help us preserve our (personal protective equipment) and keep our staff safe,” Marcus said.
Those who have to wait longer for results say the delay can be anxiety-provoking.
A 42-year-old woman from the city’s North Side said she was tested on March 18 by Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and still hasn’t received results.
“I don’t think we’re conducting enough tests, and I don’t think results are coming back fast enough," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy. "This is broad scope across the country, and my case is one example.”
For outpatient testing, Northwestern uses a commercial lab that originally estimated two to four days’ turnaround for COVID-19 results, a spokeswoman said.
“Unfortunately in most cases turnaround has exceeded the estimated four days,” the spokeswoman said. “Patients with positive results are called first. Individuals awaiting test results are advised to self-isolate, monitor symptoms and to notify us if their illness worsens."
As for Nissenbaum, he said he tried calling Advocate Aurora Health -- the hospital system that he said performed his test -- earlier this week but received no answers.
“Our thoughts are with all patients who are dealing with the uncertainties of COVID-19,” a spokesman for the hospital system told the Tribune. “Those previously tested may have added frustrations due to long wait times for results, given the backlog at many labs. Just this week, we stood up the ability to process our own tests to turn around faster results.”
Nissenbaum said he’s concerned test result delays could hamper the national fight against the pandemic, potentially limiting data on the virus and exacerbating its spread.
“It’s definitely worrisome and bothersome to know that we have such a lack of tests and results,” he said.
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