Wait times for COVID-19 tests increase as cases surge

Coronavirus testing
Tom Wolf/Creative Commons
Although the city of Berkeley has increased its COVID-19 testing capacity, the city is facing issues of rising wait times as demand for tests outpaces capacity.

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The city of Berkeley has increased its COVID-19 testing capacity, but is struggling with increased demand and long wait times.

With mobile testing at nursing facilities and the opening of a state-run testing site in South Berkeley last month, Berkeley has been conducting an increased average of 288 tests per day. As cases and testing demand rise, however, turnaround times are increasing and community health centers are grappling with more barriers to testing.

According to Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the city testing average exceeded its daily goal of 245 over the past seven days. For the week of July 6, 1.6% of tests in Berkeley were positive.

The wait time for receiving test results is currently one day for priority patients and an average of four to six days for others, according to Kim Gorode, a spokesperson for Quest Diagnostics, one of the companies that tests the samples collected in Berkeley.

“Testing is critical to help identify, treat and isolate people who are infected by Covid-19,” said Michael Stacey, chief medical officer at LifeLong Medical Care, a health care center that manages a testing site in Berkeley, in an email. “The data gained from testing informs strategies to slow virus spread in the community, such as opening or closing of businesses, schools, churches, parks.”

Stacey added that all essential workers, people who have attended large gatherings and those who have been exposed to confirmed cases should get tested. According to Elgstrand, tests are being prioritized for symptomatic and high-risk people.

There are challenges regarding access to testing, however.

“The absence of a coherent, coordinated and well-funded federal response to Covid-19 testing, combined with anti-immigration policies create challenges to broadening community access to testing,” Stacey said in the email.

He added that the number of people with inadequate insurance coverage is growing as a result of increasing unemployment.

With the disease spreading across the United States, one main challenge to testing is increased wait times as demand outpaces capacity. Berkeley is also facing issues of rising wait times for both processing and scheduling of tests.

“Many more people are requesting tests as a result of surging cases throughout the state and country,” Elgstrand said in the email. “In the meantime, the most important thing people can do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to continue social distancing and wear a mask.”

Gorode said other reasons for the increase in demand include a rise in testing for those in federally qualified health care centers, prisons and nursing homes, orders from community events as well as employees getting tested before returning to in-person work.

In order to combat the challenge of high demand, the city and its health centers are working to install additional technology and collaborate with lab providers that have underused testing capacity.

All Alameda County residents can be tested for COVID-19 free of charge at community testing sites regardless of insurance, ability to pay or immigration status.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.