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Long backlogs for coronavirus test results frustrate Mass. doctors

Results can take as long as a week, forcing medical personnel to use up equipment that’s in short supply treating people who may not have COVID-19.

A pathologist held a nasal swab from a COVID-19 test kit at the Core Lab in Northwell Health's Center for Advanced Medicine in Lake Success, N.Y.
A pathologist held a nasal swab from a COVID-19 test kit at the Core Lab in Northwell Health's Center for Advanced Medicine in Lake Success, N.Y.Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

The wait for coronavirus test results in Massachusetts can last as long as a week, a delay that exacerbates equipment shortages, frustrates worried patients and families, and hamstrings front line health care workers’ efforts to combat the growing pandemic.

Faster test results can help determine which patients need to be treated by medical staff in protective gear. Tests processed in the state lab take a day or two, officials said Wednesday. But according to a review of area hospitals and caregivers, the delay can be much longer, often forcing medical staff to waste already scarce protective gear on patients who are not infected.

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State officials attributed the delays to slower processing at private labs just coming online.

In Southbridge, Harrington Hospital president and CEO Edward Moore said that if the hospital runs out of protective gear, it can’t keep its staff safe. If the staff start getting sick, there’s no one to take care of the patients.

“It’s almost like a doomsday scenario,” Moore said. “With lack of testing, we’re all way behind the eight ball.”

In Worcester, UMass Memorial Health Care has faced the same critical problem of long delays — as much as seven days — in getting test results back, many from the state Department of Public Health, said Dr. Eric Dickson, chief executive officer of UMass Memorial Health Care.

He said 100 patients are in the emergency department waiting for test results, while 40 caregivers are in quarantine also awaiting results.

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On Wednesday, Governor Baker gave updates on actions taken by Massachusetts to fight the coronavirus. (Photo: Barry Chin/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

“As much as I thought it was going to get better, it’s not feeling better to us today,” Dickson said Wednesday.

The lag has forced medical workers to suit up in masks, gowns, and goggles for every interaction, using up personal protective gear to treat patients who may not be infected. It is wasting supplies that no hospital seems able to get enough of.

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“The slowness in the testing in getting back results is having a really negative effect on our [personal protective equipment] sources and we will pay the price later,” he said.

Doctors are also reporting another problem: a shortage of swabs used for the tests. Without enough swabs, hospitals must ration tests, administering them to only the sickest patients.

The backlog of pending tests is the latest setback in what has been a sputtering and potentially catastrophic response to a growing pandemic. Initially a severe dearth of tests in Massachusetts and across the United States hampered efforts to diagnose, track, and contain the virus.

Even as commercial laboratories increase capacity to test, physicians are reporting long waits for results despite claims by the state Department of Public Health of a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time. One primary care physician in suburban Boston described waiting four days for results.

At a press conference Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker said in response to a question about the lag in results that, “it depends on who is doing the test.” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders reiterated the same time frame state officials have offered since last week.

“Our state lab turns the test around in 24 to 48 hours," Sudders said. “Some of the commercial labs are three to seven days. It also depends on the priority of who the test is coming in for, whether it’s a first responder and the like.”

Baker’s administration has been criticized for its reluctance to publicly disclose details about the state’s effort to test for the coronavirus. Public health officials have urged the state to provide daily updates that include more than just how many people have tested positive.

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In recent days, the administration has begun disclosing the total number of tests performed, but it does not provide enough data to assess the extent of the backlog. The state’s daily update Wednesday said at least 2,271 people had been tested and 256 had been positive. However, the state did not disclose how many people’s tests came back negative and how many were still pending.

Coronavirus testing has also been complicated by continued confusion about who is eligible. Across Massachusetts, people seeking to be tested continue to report being turned away by hospitals and other health care providers, even when they present symptoms of COVID-19.

And now, a national shortage of specialized swabs and other supplies has forced Massachusetts hospitals to ration tests for the most severe cases. Beth Israel Lahey Health has halted outpatient screening for the coronavirus, reserving tests for the most severe cases at its network of 12 hospitals. The long, skinny swabs used to collect material from the upper throat have been in global demand.

“Beth Israel Lahey Health sites are temporarily suspending influenza testing and limiting eligibility for COVID-19 testing, due to a national shortage of testing swabs,” said Jennifer Kritz, director of communications. “This will allow us to continue COVID-19 testing for the most seriously ill patients and our caregivers until supply chain issues are resolved.”

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On the North Shore, Dr. Alain Chaoui, head of Congenial Healthcare, said he was worried because he had been running out of swabs for a practice with 50,000 patients across five locations. But Chaoui said he was relieved when he suddenly received a shipment Tuesday of 100 swabs from LabCorp.

Lab turnaround times for his COVID-19 tests had been running about four days, but he said the latest batch came in a bit quicker — in three days.

“Hopefully it’s going to be faster now,” he said.

The backlog has left families in limbo, in some cases separating children from their grandparents, who are most susceptible to COVID-19. That includes the 20-year-old daughter of Jeff Block of Boston, who returned early from a study abroad program in Florence.

Block’s daughter, who did not want to be named, arrived at Logan Airport Thursday with a cold, cough, and respiratory issues but no fever. She drove alone to the family’s summer home in Mashpee as her family called the state Department of Public Health to arrange a test. After a seven-hour wait, Block said, they received conflicting information and he was told by a state health worker that they were limiting tests to people with fevers because of the shortage.

Ultimately, she was able to get tested at Cape Cod Hospital, and she has been waiting, sick and alone, in Mashpee to find out whether she has the coronavirus.

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“For us, it’s been five days and we still don’t have results,” Block said. “If she [doesn’t have it], we would like to go down the Cape and bring our whole family down there. But if there’s any chance she has it, there’s no way I would bring my 87-year-old mother.”

Evan Allen and Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.