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Testing issues cloud scope of California’s coronavirus outbreak

Los Angeles Fire Department officials who wore protective gear delivered testing kits to waiting motorists at a COVID-19 drive-up testing site in Elysian Park, Los Angeles on Thursday.
Los Angeles Fire Department officials who wore protective gear delivered testing kits to waiting motorists at a COVID-19 drive-up testing site in Elysian Park, Los Angeles on Thursday.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California is ramping up testing for coronavirus even as a backlog of 59,000 pending tests is growing, delaying some people from getting results for up to 12 days and leaving an incomplete picture of how widespread the outbreak is in the state.

Testing rolled out slowly in California but is accelerating now. More than 90,000 tests have been administered statewide, but nearly two-thirds of those results were still pending, according to state figures.

“The backlogs are not necessarily getting better, in real time, but we’re hopeful,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday.

Newsom said it was a national problem — as is the shortage of tests and a lack of the masks, gloves and other protection healthcare workers must wear to administer tests from people who are possibly carrying the highly contagious virus.

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The state may be able to fast-track test results as more people receive blood-based tests, Newsom said. Testing that relies on taking nasal swabs, the most prominent initial testing measure, is primarily responsible for delays.

The average wait time in Los Angeles County is five to six days, but some results have taken 10 or 12 days, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the county health director. The county uses a mix of privately and publicly run labs.

Increasing testing “doesn’t really help us as much as it ought to if there are really long waits for people to find out whether they are positive,” Ferrer said. “It’s really important for us to know if they’re positive — both for their medical treatment but also so that we can immediately move those people into isolation, identify their close contacts and have their close contacts quarantining.”

The coronavirus mainly is spread though coughs and sneezes. For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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California has surpassed 10,000 cases and 233 deaths, according to a global tally by Johns Hopkins University. State health officials are girding for a peak of cases they expect in mid-May and could fill all the state's 75,000 hospital beds and 66,000 emergency beds being assembled now in hospitals and other locations.

Newsom has emphasized for weeks that the state needs to flatten the curve of cases so the peak arrives as late as possible and the state has time to prepare for it. Having accurate and up—to-date data from testing is key to tracking that curve.

Newsom said he’s put together a new task force on testing and expects to announce in the coming days an effort to substantially increase California’s testing capacity.

Currently the state has prioritized that the tests be used on the most symptomatic and vulnerable patients, along with health care workers and some others. That further clouds a picture of an outbreak.

“Testing is uneven, which is to put it kindly," said Dr. David Eisenman, director of the Center of Public Health and Disasters at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The number of cases identified is not an accurate count of anything because it’s such a select group of people who get the testing done.”

Dr. Shawn Nasseri, a Beverly Hills doctor who treats patients with respiratory problems, said it's frustrating and disheartening to try to diagnose patients when he has been rationed only a few test kits a week. He was able to administer six tests in a drive-thru line in the alley behind his office a week ago and was still awaiting results Thursday from one of those.

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“We’re all flying blind. We’re hoping and praying more testing will become available,” Nasseri said. “We have absolutely no idea how many people are truly infected at this point.”

Marin County north of San Francisco said it was only able to test 50 people a day because that's the limit imposed by the state lab that processes its results, spokeswoman Laine Hendricks said.

Last week, San Francisco Bay Area health officials issued an order that requires private labs to report positive, negative and inconclusive testing results to public health authorities. Labs need to report the results within an hour and are required to report information that helps health officials locate the person tested.

Orange County's own lab aims for a two-day turnaround for the 80 to 100 tests it handles a day, but often completes them in 12 to 24 hours, said Megan Crumpler, director of Orange County’s Public Health Laboratory.

“We’re just fortunate that we’re not getting inundated,” Crumpler said.

Crumpler said the county's testing is limited because of shortages of the preferred type of swab used to collect specimens for one type of test and a limit of kits that extract viral genetic material. It's trying to get more of both.

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Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Kathleen Ronayne and Adam Beam in Sacramento, Amy Taxin in Orange County and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.