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Getting testing for COVID-19? Your turnaround time could vary greatly. Here's why
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Cars line up Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at The Longstreet Clinic for their drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Julie Smith started feeling sinus pressure Saturday, July 11, and developed a deep cough the next day.

As the phone lines opened Monday morning, she tried to contact the Department of Public Health to schedule a COVID-19 test. After being screened for symptoms, she was told there weren’t any openings in Hall County for six days.

Smith was able to take a test at an urgent care center instead and got her negative results back three days later.

She said she “wanted to make sure if I needed to take any extra precautions,” especially because her daughter has severe asthma.

Jo Brewer, executive director of Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s laboratory services, said the health system is now handling more than 1,000 tests per day and has divided the testing demand to different labs.

One lab in Alpharetta is averaging a 24-hour turnaround times for Northeast Georgia Health System’s inpatient population, which is closely monitored by the system. 

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The Longstreet Clinic patients get tested for COVID-19 Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at their drive-thru testing site. - photo by Scott Rogers

“They have to have it at that quick of a turnaround time because we use that for preoperative purposes, but it’s also all the admissions from the emergency room, for all of the emergency room non-admitted patients and any testing that is ordered in-house all goes to this one laboratory that has about a 24-hour (turnaround time),” Brewer said.

The longest turnaround time, about four days, is for outpatient tests, she said.

Brewer said the health system converted much of its in-house test specimens in late April to this lab averaging a 24-hour turnaround time.

“At our request, they did go from six to seven days per week, and that really helped with the weekend turnaround time,” Brewer said.

The longest turnaround time is to a lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, which also receives test specimens from around the country.

District 2 Department of Public Health tests

  • *March 95      
  • *April    938
  • May      5,430
  • June     6,261
  • July      7,650
  • TOTAL 20,374 (to date)

*In March and April, fewer test kits were available

“It really depends on transport time to that particular laboratory, their demand at the time and their capacity at the time,” Brewer said regarding a lab’s turnaround time.

The health system is currently only asking for symptomatic people to come for testing.

“We did try and open it up for a period of time to asymptomatic folks. That sent the volume too high, and we weren’t able to handle that,” Brewer said.

The percentage of tests coming back positive reached 34.6% this week. Brewer said that number has bounced between the high 20s and the low 30s.

Data provided Wednesday July 29, from Northeast Georgia Health System showed there were 174 confirmed patients across the health system and 94 patients awaiting results.

The day before, those numbers were 173 and 75, respectively.

District 2 Department of Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer said results are currently taking about six to 10 days to return, which is up from the three to seven days DPH previously experienced.

“As testing increased across the state, it stressed the labs to get the test completed and results back to individuals,” Palmer wrote in an email.

Gov. Brian Kemp and DPH announced a partnership July 20 with Mako Medical for testing supplies and processing 10,000 tests per day.

"Georgia has dramatically expanded testing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic," Kemp said in a statement from the announcement. "As demand for testing has soared across the country, many private labs have been unable to process tests quick enough to aid in contact tracing and mitigation efforts. With some Georgians waiting well over a week for their results, the status quo is unacceptable. This new partnership will not only expand the number of tests the state is able to administer, but also greatly reduce the turnaround time of those tests. This is vital to Georgia's efforts in our fight against COVID-19."

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Patients are checked in Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at The Longstreet Clinic's drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. Drive-thru testing for COVID-19 resumed on Friday. - photo by Scott Rogers

Longstreet Clinic is averaging 111 tests per day. In the past week, there have been 780 tests with 26% testing positive. 

Testing has increased at the clinic, going from an average of 80 test specimens each day in the past month to now more than 100 test specimens per day. Some days have seen more than 150 tests.

Longstreet Clinic officials have said there have been stretches where testing turnaround is 48-72 hours, but then hits “a pocket of tests” taking a week to return results.

“Due to the increase in testing, they were seeing their collection supplies beginning to diminish instead of maintain a steady supply. There’s not a crisis by any means, but they are urging staff to make sure there’s strong reason to test for COVID before ordering (patient is symptomatic or there is a strong chance the patient has been exposed) so they continue to have enough supplies on hand to test those who need it,” said Erin Williamson on behalf of Longstreet Clinic.

Looking ahead to the fall and its flu season, Brewer said the health system is trying to determine how to screen for multiple respiratory problems.

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Cars line up Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at The Longstreet Clinic for their drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. - photo by Scott Rogers