The most painful thing about taking a COVID-19 test isn’t necessarily the swab that practically extends to your brain (while that’s not fun, it’s not terrible). It’s the painstaking amount of time it takes to get the results back.
There are a few main reasons why lab results take so long, according to experts. First and foremost is the sheer number of people getting tests.
“As COVID-19 cases have surged in many areas of the United States, so too has the number of people requesting tests,” said Kristin Dean, the associate medical director at Doctor on Demand.
The rising demand has so far outweighed the number of labs and health care workers who able to process the results in a timely manner.
“There are still a finite number of labs and analyzers in existing labs that have the capability to the analyze a COVID-19 test sample,” said Karen Smith, system vice president of laboratory services at CommonSpirit Health.
“Efforts are underway nationwide to stand up more lab capacity and to procure more test platforms and reagents, which will help meet the demand and need for quick results in the coming weeks,” she continued. “COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future and our country needs to invest in developing new labs and other testing capabilities.”
The process of transporting samples from testing sites and doctors offices to offsite labs can also cause slower results.
“After a health professional orders a COVID-19 test and a sample is taken with a swab, it must be transported in a sterile container to a lab for analysis. Tests are conducted in our own laboratories or in commercial, private and academic labs as well as state and county health labs,” Smith said. “Test results can be delayed for a number of reasons, including transportation if a sample has to be transported to a lab in another location.”
But with that in mind, here are some ways you might be able to get your lab work faster.
Check out what people are saying on Twitter.
Sometimes Twitter has the world’s most transparent, honest and up-to-date reviews. Before I went to get a coronavirus test in New York City, I did some sleuthing to see what people were saying about the testing places near me. The location I ultimately went to had a decent number of Twitter replies from patients saying they got their results back in a few days. Other urgent care centers were being tagged by people complaining that it had been upwards of two weeks with no results. It’s worth poking around on social media to get a sense of what people are experiencing in your community.
Call your doctor and see what they recommend.
Your primary care physician may have advice or insight on where to get tested, Smith said.
“If someone is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 and would like to be tested, they should contact their physician for guidance. Your doctor can assess your symptoms and direct you to a local testing center,” she explained.
Look for locations that offer rapid tests.
Chances are you’ll get a swab up your nose when being tested for COVID-19 test — aka a PCR test.
PCR testing is the most common and reliable way to detect COVID-19, but there are some other options if you desperately need results sooner, Dean said.
“There are also alternative testing types to the PCR testing, these ‘rapid’ tests can provide results same day,” she said.
However, she added that, “It is important to caution that early rapid tests were not as reliable in terms of ruling out an active COVID-19 infection” — meaning that rapid tests are more likely to produce false or inconclusive results.
Dean recommended researching your city and rapid COVID-19 testing to see if a location near you offers these tests. Your city or state should also have a website where you can find testing centers, which may indicate if they have rapid tests or not.
Call testing centers and ask what their turnaround is like.
In addition to calling your doctor, you can also phone testing centers directly and ask about their COVID-19 testing practices.
“You can call your local testing sites to request information about the turnaround time for results as well as any restrictions on who can be tested at that location,” Dean said.
Understand that where you live can have an impact.
This isn’t a tip on getting results faster, but rather something to keep in mind: When it comes down to it, where you’re getting tested matters. The higher the number of cases in your area, the more backlog you’ll likely experience.
“The ability to expedite the testing process will likely vary by geographic region,” Dean said. “Areas with more testing accessibility will have additional resources available to residents, while areas with surging COVID-19 cases may not have as much ability to rapidly process testing.”
Of course, none of this is certain ― every city and state is different. The most important thing is to get tested, regardless of how long results will take, if you think you have the coronavirus or have been exposed to someone who has it.
And, as always, continue to wear your mask and socially distance. That will help prevent you and others from having to deal with the disease in the future.
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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