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Why COVID-19 Test Results In Mass. May Come Back In 24 Hours — Or Two Weeks04:33
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People in Massachusetts may be able to get a coronavirus test, but it could take them a while to learn the results. According to health care providers, a recent increase in demand has caused some tests to take more than a week to process.

The spike in requests for coronavirus tests seemingly became evident in the state about a month ago — right around the July Fourth holiday.

A Chelsea resident inserts a swab up his nose during free COVID-19 testing offered by the state in Chelsea Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Chelsea resident inserts a swab up his nose during free COVID-19 testing offered by the state in Chelsea Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At that time, Jennie Roffman, of Brookline, planned to head to Maine for the weekend. Because Maine requires Massachusetts visitors to show they tested negative for the virus within three days of arriving, she searched for a testing site.

"We specifically told everyone we spoke with that that was why we needed it, and we were leaving in three days and everyone we spoke with said, 'yes, that's fine,' the tests have been coming back within two days," Roffman said.

But that didn't happen, and she had to cancel the trip. She complained to the urgent care facility about the broken promise and was told the wait for results had been increasing.

Weeks later, the same urgent care facility where Roffman was tested said it is now taking about seven to 11 days to get results. Another urgent care facility advised patients it can take as long as two weeks — the timeframe health officials say it takes those who are not asymptomatic to show symptoms.

But, those lengthier waits were not seen across the board. Caitlin Batstone got tested in Braintree about a week and a half ago. Her primary care doctor arranged the test, and she had results within 24 hours that she could check on a phone app.

"I didn't think it would be easy for me to get [a test] if I was asymptomatic, but I got my results so quickly, and the test was so quick," Batstone said. "So yeah, I was definitely surprised."

Some patients said they're getting results in less than an hour. Those tests typically involve an antigen test, which looks for fragments of the virus and is considered less reliable.

A young boy cries to his father after being tested for COVID-19 at the free testing being offered by the state in Chelsea Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A young boy cries to his father after being tested for COVID-19 at the free testing being offered by the state in Chelsea Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The state Department of Public Health said the average turnaround time for a test in Massachusetts is 2.2 days. Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday said most tests are returned within 24 to 48 hours.

But the governor did admit people were experiencing longer wait times. Baker said the state's less than 2% positive test rate meant the delays weren't necessarily a danger — but he promised turnaround times will improve.

"We've been in many conversations with some of the larger national platforms around test turnaround time, and I do believe in the next several weeks we should see some improvements with respect to their turnaround times," Baker said. "If we were in a state with a positive test rate in the 20s or 30s, I'd be out of my mind."

"If we were in a state with a positive test rate in the 20s or 30s, I'd be out of my mind."

Gov. Charlie Baker

The delays are in large part because of backlogs at the national labs processing tests. One of those labs, Quest Diagnostics, said in a statement this week that its testing turnaround time has doubled in the past week. Quest said on average it takes more than two days to get results for those considered a priority such as hospitalized patients and symptomatic health care workers. For other patients, Quest said it takes at least a week — and sometimes as long as two weeks. The company blamed the delays on demand for testing as the virus spikes in other parts of the country.

Although Quest opened a lab in Marlborough in March to expand testing, the company said that lab is processing results from around the country. Quest did recently receive federal approval to do what's known as "pool testing," where up to four samples can be tested in one batch.

A worker at the lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard processes coronavirus tests. (Courtesy Scott Sassone for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard)
A worker at the lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard processes coronavirus tests. (Courtesy Scott Sassone for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard)

The state Department of Public Health said right now national commercial labs are running 29% of the tests conducted in Massachusetts. The DPH said hospital labs, the DPH lab and the Broad Institute are now processing 71% of the tests in Massachusetts, more than double what the operation handled three months ago.

Health experts said ideally it should take 24 hours or less to get results in order to prevent outbreaks and conduct effective contact tracing. They said the demand for testing will only increase and is expected to do so soon.

Dr. David Hamer, with Boston University's School of Public Health, said many college reopening plans rely on the ability to test thousands of students in a few weeks.

"The issue in Massachusetts is that we have things under control, and we want to keep it that way," Dr. Hamer said. "With the large number of university students perhaps coming from other states and countries where there's basically a raging epidemic going on, we want to be able to test them on arrival and then frequently."

Staff at the CRSP (Clinical Research Sequencing Platform) lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard process COVID-19 tests in July. (Courtesy Scott Sassone for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard)
Staff at the CRSP (Clinical Research Sequencing Platform) lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard process COVID-19 tests in July. (Courtesy Scott Sassone for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard)

Hamer said Boston University built its own lab to administer and process tests this fall. Some colleges and universities announced they are working out how to do regular testing with the Broad Institute. The Broad confirmed its working on testing with several dozen higher education institutions in New England and should be able to process tests in about 24 hours.

Right now, the Broad said it can process 35,000 tests a day and can increase capacity to up to 100,000 tests a day, if needed. Beyond colleges, public health experts said increased turnaround times overall are a concern that should be closely monitored.

This segment aired on July 24, 2020.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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