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Private labs say demand for coronavirus tests is down and they can test more people who aren't as sick

The labs say they can now test more people who aren't already hospitalized or in other high-priority categories.
Image:  Quest Diagnostics
Cars line up outside the Central Outreach Wellness Center, in partnership with Quest Diagnostics, on the Northside of Pittsburgh on March 16, 2020.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

The demand for coronavirus tests at the nation's private labs, which handle the vast majority of testing for COVID-19, has dropped so much since its peak that the labs now have "considerable" unused capacity and can test more lower-priority patients, according to the American Clinical Laboratory Association.

The number of COVID-19 tests conducted daily by private labs peaked on Sunday, April 5, at 108,000. It dropped under 100,000 a day after that.

From Sunday, April 12, to Monday, April 13, the number of daily tests fell from 75,000 to 43,000.

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According to a spokesperson for the ACLA, an industry trade group, orders from physicians' offices have been on the decline. Although delays and backlogs were a major problem as clinical labs worked to ramp up testing for weeks, there are no more backlogs at ACLA member labs.

Most state health departments have been telling doctors that high-risk patients, health care workers and people with severe symptoms should be prioritized for testing. The advice, which was in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about which patients should be given priority, was based on a shortage of testing capacity.

But testing capacity has been increasing. Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest clinical testing companies in the U.S., can now perform about 45,000 a day.

The private labs now say they have the capacity to test more patients with less serious symptoms.

A spokesperson told NBC News that in response to the drop in demand, Quest is "strengthening our outreach to healthcare providers," telling doctors there is more capacity available.

The company will expand its prioritization program, which was designed to fast-track patients in the CDC's top priority class — hospitalized patients and symptomatic health care workers.

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Given the drop in demand, Quest can now fast-track patients in the two other top categories listed in the CDC's testing guidance. The second category includes symptomatic patients who are first responders, seniors or nursing home residents or those who have underlying conditions. "Priority 3" includes all symptomatic patients, mildly symptomatic patients in hard-hit communities and asymptomatic health care workers and first responders.

The labs still do not have the capacity for mass testing of asymptomatic members of the general public. Challenges to increase the capacity still more include shortages of testing swabs, reagents and other supplies.