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Money and speed for COVID-19 tests needed to combat 'impending disaster'

"No one wants to wait 26 days for a test result for a highly infectious deadly disease."
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It has been 14 days since Aaron Weeks was tested for COVID-19, and he still doesn't have his test results.

"What's the point?" asked Weeks, 31, of Brooklyn, New York.

He got tested after a close contact was diagnosed with COVID-19. Even though Weeks never felt sick, people without symptoms can spread the coronavirus to others.

If people have to wait at least two weeks for results, it increases the risk that they'll unknowingly infect others before they know for sure whether they're infectious.

"It's very difficult for people to be responsible — especially younger people — when it takes 14 days-plus to get their test results," Weeks said.

He isn't alone in his frustration over the lag in COVID-19 test results, which has been a problem in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic.

Elliot Truslow, 30, of Tucson, Arizona, waited nearly a month for test results, which ultimately were negative.

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"No one wants to wait 26 days for a test result for a highly infectious deadly disease. No one wants to experience that," Truslow said.

Dr. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services for health, who is overseeing COVID-19 testing, said during a call with reporters Thursday: "We want results back as fast as possible."

He acknowledged that some people have waited at least 12 days for results. "We can't deny that that happens," he said. He called such cases "outliers," however.

Giroir said a "reasonable turnaround time" for test results — from the time tests are ordered to the time the results are in — would be three days.

A study published Thursday in The Lancet Public Health, however, suggested that a delay of just three days makes it nearly impossible to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The study was based on computer models of how the virus spreads.

"In our model, minimizing testing delays had the largest impact on reducing transmission of the virus," said a co-author of the study, Dr. Marc Bonten, a professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

That's in the best-case scenario, when public health officials are able to conduct appropriate contact tracing of suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Contact tracing involves tracking down every single person a patient has been in contact with to make sure they get tested and self-isolate until they get test results. Ramping up contact tracing efforts in the U.S., however, has been difficult.

But without quick testing, contact tracing becomes ineffective. In the six months since the first known case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., experts still blame a lack of diagnostic tests for the failure to stop the pandemic, which is increasing in this country.

"We don't have nearly enough tests," said Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "The delays in the current testing system render much of the testing we're doing right now relatively ineffective for actually controlling the pandemic."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 45 million tests have been completed since the U.S. outbreak began. But Thursday, the Rockefeller Foundation reported that the country will need to ramp up testing dramatically, to 30 million tests a week.

The foundation, a bipartisan group of experts, said the U.S. faces an "impending disaster" and should allocate at least $75 billion more for COVID-19 testing to ensure that tests are "free and accessible to all who need them." That includes low-income and minority communities hit hard by COVID-19.

The foundation said it's critical to speed testing in advance of a looming flu season.

"There will be 100 million cases of the sniffles," Shah said. "If everybody believes that that's COVID-19, it's going to strangle our economy, shut down our critical institutions and introduce so much fear and crisis into the American system of government, education, health services and food services that it will be a disaster that looks much worse than what we experienced in the spring."

The foundation also said it's committing $100 million to the cause.

Hospitalized patients suspected of having the coronavirus generally have faster turnaround times for test results. One of the largest testing labs in the country, Quest Diagnostics, said it takes about a day to return results for people sick enough to be in the hospital.

"However, our average turnaround time for all other populations is seven or more days," Kim Gorode, a spokesperson for Quest Diagnostics, wrote in an email. The company blames the lag time on recent dramatic increases in demand for testing across the country.

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The Rockefeller Foundation's report said the U.S. may need to expand investments in a type of diagnostic test called antigen testing. It's slightly less accurate but also less expensive, and it could be useful for those, like Weeks, who aren't experiencing symptoms.

"These new antigen tests can give the results within 15 or 20 minutes," Shah said. They're "fast, low-cost, somewhat less sensitive but much more practical to use very broadly."

"America needs to have nearly 30 million tests a week by the fall in order to avert a catastrophe," he added.

As the U.S. continues to try to ramp up testing, Giroir pleaded with Americans to do their part.

"Please wear a mask in public. Avoid public gatherings of greater than 10 or 25," he said. "The way to fix the testing problem is by fixing the virus problem."

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