COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sick with a fever and sweats, Chapin Berk, 23, fears he has COVID-19, he said after getting swabbed outside the Columbus Public Health building. But he will not know for sure for five to seven days when his results come back, the drive-thru test site workers told him.
The Columbus Public Health building front circle testing location is one of several in the area for high-priority individuals who are actively experiencing symptoms common to COVID-19. Samples from the site are processed by one of Central Ohio’s three major adult hospitals, rather than being sent to private labs where delays are longer.
As of last week, the site stopped testing asymptomatic individuals and the health department began referring those people away to CVS or test sites at a federally qualified health center, which typically use Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp to process tests.
Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said the move was intended to keep hospital testing resources available for those most in need.
“Our hospitals were experiencing some shortages in their lab supplies and we really wanted to keep our hospital testing for the sick, who need those answers as quickly as possible,” she said.
Columbus Public Health spokesperson Kelli Newman said in general the hospitals are processing its tests in 48 hours, but acknowledged there have been “a few intermittent delays” recently due to lab supplies.
Berk’s expected turnaround time of five to seven days, despite his active symptoms, reflects the massive uptick in testing demand as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens locally and across the state.
He said the length of the expected wait was a surprise.
Last month, Berk went to a Dave Chappelle comedy show in Dayton where temperatures were checked at the entrance. He was not sick, but after being out in the sun for a while, his temperature was recorded at one degree above normal, so he was ushered aside to get a rapid test.
“They took me to this bus, and they gave me test. It was ready in 15 minutes, so I thought that’s how it was for everything,” he said.
Berk was in the process of moving apartments, and he and his mother were staying in separate hotel rooms while he awaited results. In the meantime, he cannot go to work at his landscaping job.
Roberts said the city’s positivity rate has risen from around 6 or 7 percent up to 13 percent. White House Coronavirus Response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx recently raised concern about the positivity rates in Columbus and Cleveland, warning they could be among the country’s next hotspots.
Just last month, it was easy to get tested for COVID-19 in Columbus. Free pop up testing tests were available even to those without symptoms, and results were ready in two days.
For the last few weeks, Columbus has not had any pop up testing sites, meaning if you do not meet certain criteria related to symptoms, exposure, and occupation there may be nowhere you can get tested locally. The Ohio Department of Health said the city has not asked for a pop up site.
“Columbus Public Health needs to ask for a pop up testing site. We are doing them where counties and cities are asking for them,” spokesperson Melanie Amato said.
Newman said the city is fortunate to have many testing opportunities for its residents. She said the department will continue to monitor community testing and will request additional pop up testing “if and when it’s needed.”
A Midwest CVS spokesperson said people are often having to wait six to 10 days for results, and in some cases, even longer.
“The increase in cases of COVID-19 in certain areas of the country is causing extremely high demand for tests across the board,” Charlie Rice-Minoso said. “This has caused backlogs for our lab partners and is delaying their processing of patient samples.”
Minoso said CVS is in discussions with potential new third-party lab partners to expand its capacity for testing.
Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp said they do not break down turnaround times by state, but acknowledged national delays and growing demand for tests. Quest reports average delays of about a week for non-priority patients.
“Persistent high demand has strained our testing capacity and extended delays for test results,” a statement from the company said.
LabCorp said it has recently reduced its average time to deliver results to two to three days after specimens are received.
Roberts said in Columbus she has only heard of handful of cases of two week delays. She said most people going through private labs are getting results back in five to seven days.
According to Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s testing guidance, not everyone should get a COVID-19 test: “Most people will have mild illness and can recover at home without medical care or testing.”
Individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 and do not have symptoms are instructed by Wexner to quarantine for 14 days
Many employers and schools have developed reopening plans that were contingent on the ability to temporarily quarantining people exposed to confirmed positive individuals.
Testing delays have severely jeopardized these plans, creating situations in which people who are exposed, but asymptomatic are experiencing long waits during which time they cannot safely work or go about their normal lives.