Amid coronavirus spikes, COVID-19 testing demand is outpacing capacity, major test providers warn

The number of novel coronavirus cases confirmed in a single day in the U.S. climbed to an all-time high of more than 50,000 on Thursday, with the infection curve rising in 40 out of 50 states in a reversal that has largely spared only the Northeast. And as demand for COVID-19 testing rises, major test providers are sounding alarms about capacity issues — a problem that has plagued the U.S. since the outset of the pandemic.

In yet another alarming indicator, 36 states were seeing a rise in the percentage of COVID-19 tests that were coming back positive for the virus. The surge has been blamed in part on many Americans not wearing masks or following other social distancing guidelines as states hastily lifted their lockdowns over the past few weeks.

More concerning, perhaps, is the demand for coronavirus testing in the U.S. once again beginning to outpace the supply. 

On June 29, Quest Diagnostics, one of the nation’s leading medical testing companies, which completed more than 5 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests in June, announced that it is overwhelmed by the surging demand for coronavirus-related services. 

As a result of the high demand, the company said it is currently only providing single-day turnaround for coronavirus test results for hospitalized patients only.

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The company added that orders for its molecular diagnostic services have grown by 50 percent in the past three weeks.

“We communicated that we are experiencing surging demand for our COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing services. We also communicated that this demand is likely to extend average turnaround times for reporting test results,” the company said in a statement.

LabCorp, another major testing company which performs approximately 130,000 COVID-19 tests per day, said in a statement that a delay in testing results should be expected due to the recent surge in demand.

“In recent weeks, we have seen a steady increase in demand for molecular testing and we are doing everything we can to continue delivering results in a timely manner while continually increasing testing capacity,” the company said. 

LabCorp said that results for COVID-19 tests on average may take one to two days longer. 

Currently, all but 10 states are showing an increase in newly confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization that collects testing information. 

FILE - FILE - A view of the drive-in testing site at Hard Rock Stadium parking lot on June 27, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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The outbreaks are most severe in Arizona, Texas and Florida, which together with California have re-closed or otherwise clamped back down on bars, restaurants and movie theaters.

Nebraska and South Dakota were the only states outside the Northeast with a downward trend in cases.

While some of the increases may be explained in part by expanded testing, other indicators are grim, too, including hospitalizations and positive test rates. Over the past two weeks, the percentage of positive tests in Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee has doubled. In Idaho and Nevada, it has tripled.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic worsens, fears of testing shortfalls come as nothing new to a country currently leading the world in coronavirus case and deaths. 

In the earliest days of the pandemic, health officials said that testing in the United States was insufficient for optimal containment of the virus. 

In mid-February, when some of the first CDC coronavirus tests were administered, technicians reported getting inconclusive results, which the CDC said could be due to the test looking for signs of generic coronaviruses, of which there are many, rather than the specific virus that causes COVID-19.

By then, only about a half-dozen state and local public health labs had reliable tests.

In March, President Donald Trump assured Americans that the COVID-19 test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was “perfect” and that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” But more than two months after the first U.S. case of the new disease was confirmed, many people still could not get tested.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, testified in early March that the nation's testing system was “not really geared to what we need right now” and added, “It is a failing. Let’s admit it.”

As cases rise, the high demand for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) once again creates a risk of stretching the current supply dangerously thin. An initiative by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services aimed at distributing reusable cotton face masks to various organizations, groups and businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus has recently run out of its supply.

Project: America Strong was created with the goal of “distributing reusable cotton face coverings to critical infrastructure sectors, companies, healthcare facilities, and faith-based and community organizations across the country to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” according to the HHS website.

But according to the website, it appears the initiative has run through its supply of masks. The website featured a message on July 1 that read, “The demand for the face coverings has exceeded supply. As a result, we are no longer accepting new requests.”

The surge in cases comes as Americans head into a Fourth of July holiday weekend that health officials warn could add fuel to the virus by drawing big crowds for social gatherings. Many municipalities have canceled fireworks displays. Beaches up and down California and Florida have been closed.

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Robert Langston, media relations manager for the Transportation Security Administration, said that while he expects the TSA to be susceptible to shortages in critical PPE due to the demand, he is confident of its current inventory. 

“Since early May, TSA has directed all officers at the checkpoint to wear face masks and gloves. TSA has no concerns regarding PPE inventory at this time,” said Langston. 

He noted that fluctuations and availability of PPE inventories are due to the curve in demand, but would not share an exact number regarding the TSA’s inventory of PPE items. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.