PROVIDENCE — He started feeling lousy Saturday morning, so he asked his sons to bring an air conditioner up from the basement to cool him off.
At first, he didn’t think much of it because it was a hot, humid day. But when he began getting body aches and joint pain, he pulled out a thermometer. At 4 p.m., his temperature was over 99 degrees. By 8:30 p.m., it had climbed above 101.
Chad Galts had stayed on top of COVID-19 news and followed the state’s public health directives, so his first thought was to pull up the “Crush COVID Rhode Island” app on his cell phone. It told him: Call your doctor.
So he did, and on Sunday he drove to his doctor’s office, where a technician in a Tyvek suit shoved a swab up his nose as he sat in his car. He asked how long it would take to get the results, and she told him: At least a week — possibly longer.
At least a week?
“I was shocked,” Galts said as he continued to await results at home on Thursday. “I was thinking: I need to live for a week in a state of uncertainty, and every person I’ve come into contact with for the past two weeks needs to live in a state of uncertainty, including my 90-year-old mother-in-law, who is scared.”
Galts, 50, an independent communications consultant who lives in Providence, is among the many Rhode Islanders who are learning the hard way that the turnaround time for COVID-19 tests is growing longer amid mounting national demand on testing laboratories.
With the coronavirus surging in states across the Sun Belt, testing labs around the country are rapidly reaching capacity, resulting in test turnaround times of five to seven days or longer, making it more difficult for the nation to control the virus.
On Thursday, the Rhode Island Health Care Association, which represents 64 nursing homes in the state, warned that it now often takes more than seven days to get COVID-19 test results in Rhode Island.
Last weekend, one nursing home learned, after a seven-day wait, that six staff members tested positive, and those employees had been working and interacting with residents and other staff during that period, the group said.
“We are sounding the alarm that the lack of timely test results in our homes is causing harm to our residents and workers,” said Scott Fraser, president and CEO of the association. “Rhode Island’s nursing homes must have rapid responses to keep our residents and workers safe. This is truly a matter of protecting lives.”
The Rhode Island Department of Health provided the average turnaround times for labs that handled COVID-19 tests in the state during the week of July 5-11. The average number of days between when a patient was swabbed and when results were available in an electronic reporting system were as follows:
- 5.85 days for LabCorps
- 4.75 days for Quest Diagnostics
- 4.73 days for East Side Clinical Laboratory
- 2.73 days fro BioReference Laboratories
- 2.57 days for the dozen or so other laboratories that have each run a small number of tests
- 2.43 days for the Mayo Clinic
- 1.93 days for the Rhode Island State Health Laboratories
- 0.99 days for Lifespan laboratories
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, referred to those figures during a news conference Wednesday, saying, “We have been laser-focused on the lab turnaround time for testing.”
She noted those are average turnaround times, so some people are waiting even longer for their test results. “And that is why we are laser-focused on it,” she said.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo said the delays stem from the increasing national demand on testing labs.
“Now that big states — Texas, New York — and everyone else is doing more testing and kind of catching up to where we were, these big labs have a lot of demand, and they are getting behind,” Raimondo said. “So I’m trying to pivot and figure out, OK, what do we do?”
She suggested that Rhode Island State Health Laboratories will have to do more testing.
“We need to be more creative,” Raimondo said. “We have got to reduce that testing lag time. And we will.”
CVS Health had offered same-day drive-through testing at the Twin River casino parking lot in Lincoln, but that testing site closed at the end of June. A panel of Rhode Island experts had recommended phasing out the Abbott ID Now test used at the Twin River site, citing its one-in-five chance of false negative results.
Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said the Twin River site was valuable, helping to identify thousands of COVID-19 cases when the outbreak was surging. But the Abbott tests were less accurate on people without symptoms, and the state never envisioned making the Twin River parking lot site a permanent part of the testing system, he said.
Alexander-Scott said the state still has rapid test instruments “that are embedded in places where we can really target symptomatic people,” such as hospitals and nursing homes.
CVS Health is still providing same-day testing in Central Falls, the 1.29-square-mile city which has the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the state, but that site is only for residents of Central Falls and Pawtucket, Wendelken said.
Also, people can schedule tests at some CVS pharmacies, but those sites don’t use the rapid tests and the results typically take a few days, he said.
Raimondo said the delay in turnaround times for test results prevents people from getting back to work, and it can make it more difficult for public health officials to trace who infected people have come into contact with since contracting the virus.
“If it takes five or six days before we know if I’m positive, and I have been continuing to interact with people, that is a problem,” she said. “And it makes our contact tracing less effective.”
Effective contact tracing is a key component of containing outbreaks, Raimondo said. If people feel sick, they need to know as soon as possible whether they have COVID-19, and then they need to speak with state public health officials about who they’ve been in contact with so those people can be notified, she said.
Galts couldn’t agree more.
On Thursday, he was still racked by fever, spending most of his time alone in his bedroom. On Wednesday night, he had to postpone a phone interview because he had chills.
But he said he has developed a rash on his leg, and while he sees no sign of a bite, he is now wondering if the culprit could be a tick rather than the coronavirus.
“I am hoping for Lyme disease,” he said.
Meanwhile, his frustration is mounting as he awaits the test results. Noting that the pandemic began more than four months ago, he said that by this time, the federal government should have expanded testing capacity so that these kinds of delays would not hamper the ability to contain the virus.
“They needed to spend the money to beef up the testing and they didn’t do it,” he said. “And I’m paying for it.”
Galts said he has not seen a lot of people over the past few weeks, other than relatives and close friends. “The people you see first are the people you care most about, and I have indirectly put those people in a position of fear,” he said.
As he remains in isolation, awaiting test results, Galts said, “All of those people are held hostage for a week.”