Many people in the United States aren’t getting their coronavirus test results back quickly, which could be a major stumbling block for efforts to stop the pandemic, according to a national survey.
More than 63 percent of people nationally had to wait longer than two days to get their results back, according to the survey released Monday by researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, and Northwestern University.
“Rapid turnaround of testing for COVID-19 infection is essential to containing the pandemic. Ideally, test results would be available the same day. Our findings indicate that the United States is not currently performing testing with nearly enough speed,” researchers said in their report.
The overall average wait time was 4.1 days. But 21 percent of people said they waited more than five days, including 10 percent who said they had to wait 10 days or more.
“If we have any hope to contain COVID-19, it will be because strategies like contact tracing have worked. Contact tracing will only work well if there’s a fast turnaround on testing,” said David Lazer, a Northeastern University political science and computer science professor who was a researcher for the study.
Lazer said test result delays not only mean the patient doesn’t know that he or she is infected, but the effort to find who that patient was in contact with is delayed.
In the ideal scenario, he said, a test of a person would come back so quickly that contact tracers could find that person’s contacts and get them tested and, if positive, self-quarantined, even before they begin showing symptoms. Infected people can spread the virus even if they have no symptoms.
“The big prize is when you test someone who’s asymptomatic and they’re infected,” he said. “That’s a huge win.”
The results came from a nationally representative online survey of 19,058 people across 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted between July 10 and 26. Survey participants were asked if they had ever been tested for COVID-19, when they were tested, and how long they had to wait for their results. Approximately 2,000 of the people surveyed reported having a nasal swab test for the coronavirus.
The survey did not find much improvement over the months people reported that they were tested. People who responded that their last test had been in April said they had waited an average of 4.2 days to get results, while individuals tested in July waited 4.1 days.
“It’s been bad throughout, and it continues to be bad. More tests are being done. So that’s the good news. But the bad news is that the queue remains the same length,” Lazer said. “It could be there’s such latent demand for testing that as soon you expand capacity for testing people get in line.”
The survey also found that the average waiting time for white people was 3.9 days; for Black people 5.0 days; and for Hispanic people 4.6 days.
“The longer wait times for African Americans and Hispanic Americans mean that containment strategies will be less effective in those populations,” the report said.
Martin finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.