Getting tested for COVID-19 can be an uphill climb in some places, especially when an area erupts with new outbreaks. Labs across the country have had trouble gathering the supplies they need to run these tests, including long nasal swabs and reagents. They may secure one crucial item only to run out of another several days later, upending the process and putting critical testing on hold.
Many patients and providers have had to wait more than a week for their results.
Accurate, efficient testing is key to regaining control of the spread of coronavirus and restarting the economy. People shouldn’t go to work if they aren’t sure of their infection status – someone waiting for their results could infect dozens of other people without realizing it.
The U.S. has gone from 3 million confirmed cases to 4 million in just 16 days. Some of the worst hotspots in the country, including Arizona, California, Texas, and Florida, are looking to change their testing requirements so that only people with symptoms and underlying conditions, frontline workers, and elderly individuals can get tested.
That means asymptomatic people would be out of luck.
The Race for Testing Supplies
Last month, labs across the country were decrying the lack of long cotton swabs providers use to collect samples from a patient’s nose and throat for the test. These swabs are only made by a few companies, leading to massive delays across the U.S.
Several weeks later, these labs are now fighting for pipette tips, which are used to move liquid between vials as tests are processed. They are often fed into automated machines that allow labs to process hundreds of tests at once. Without pipette tips, lab assistants would have to do this work by hand, which would take hours.
A Swiss company called Tecan is the main supplier of pipette tips, but they’ve been slammed with orders from the U.S. in recent weeks, further delaying test results for millions of people. They plan to scale up their operations in the coming weeks.
Labs also say they are running low on equipment, machines, and sample containers.
When supplies run low, states, cities, and labs have no choice but to depend on the private sector. There’s only so much they can do to get these companies to ramp up production, especially when they operate in a different country. This often pits states, labs, and cities against one another in a bidding war. We all remember the early days of the pandemic when states had to out-bid each other for equipment and providers, but this isn’t a feasible solution. The states with the most money and resources tend to win out.
New Testing Requirements
In Albuquerque, NM, drive-through testing centers and clinics will no longer test asymptomatic individuals. People must show that they have symptoms or an underlying health condition in order to get tested.
This ensures that people most susceptible to the disease can get tested ASAP.
But this could be a recipe for disaster.
We know that the average age of infection is trending down as many younger people start to get tested. They’ve been packing beaches, bars, and restaurants in major hotspots across the country. If someone has a wild night out or goes to the beach with their friends, they may have wanted to get tested either beforehand or afterward. But now that option is no longer on the table.
Without access to testing, younger, asymptomatic individuals may spread the virus to others without their knowledge, especially if they never come down with flu-like symptoms.
We’ve also heard reports of young, healthy individuals getting severely ill after testing positive for COVID-19. Just because someone is young and healthy today doesn’t mean they will be that way tomorrow. Now these individuals will have to wait until they show symptoms to find out if they have the virus.
With testing off the table, some young people may change their habits and err on the side of caution, but that may just be wishful thinking.
Everyone should have access to a test, but until more supplies become available, asymptomatic individuals will have trouble getting tested in these hotspots.
Encourage your patients to stay home and be safe, thus limiting the demand for testing. If someone is staying in and avoiding large crowds, they may not need a test right away. We should safeguard these supplies for those who need them most without having to turn healthy individuals away.